“I am a special education teacher. My students have learning disabilities ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to cerebral palsy and emotional disturbances.” So begins William Johnson’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times.
Feeling overwhelmed already? Can you imagine coping with a class like that, compounded by the fact that these are teenagers, so raging hormones and social pressure also play a part?
And yet, as Diane Ravitch points out in “Schools We Can Envy,” published in the New York Review of Books, in recent years, elected officials and policymakers have all agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.
Bad Standardized Test Scores = A Bad Teacher?
How about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine funding, class size, and how resources are allocated? No, as Ravitch explains, the reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of jobs, but because of bad teachers.
And so one of the main pushes of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is to get bad teachers thrown out. How is it determined that a teacher is “bad”? The quality of a teacher is gauged by the results of a multiple-choice test given to students on one or two days of the year. That’s it.
Anything Not Tested Under NCLB Is Cut Back
More bad news: in response to the federal and state pressure to raise test scores, school districts nationwide have been cutting back on the arts, P.E, history, civics, even recess – anything that is not tested under NCLB. This despite the fact that no nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers, which is exactly what is happening now across the US.
But back to William Johnson. Why is he a ‘bad’ teacher? That’s the evaluation his principal gave him at the end of the last school year, checking off a few boxes and thus placing Johnson’s career in jeopardy.
How did this happen? Johnson explains:
I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?
The System Is Wrong
No, it is the system that is wrong. The truth is that we teachers care a great deal about our work, and we don’t need elected officials to motivate us. Nor do we need a blanket “What a great job you’re doing!” I’ve received that evaluation many times, and it reeks of laziness. Teachers appreciate real evaluations, reports that will help us grow in our profession.
By contrast, as Johnson describes so well, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach.
When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent.
Administrators should learn how to evaluate teachers fairly and expertly, which does not mean making teachers so scared that they can barely function.
Johnson finishes his article by saying that until we provide equal educational resources to all students and teachers, we can’t say how well or how poorly they are performing.
Which brings me back to Ravitch’s essay, in which she moves into the Finnish education system, one of the highest-performing school systems in the world, and shows how it is the complete opposite of what we have in the U.S.
* Teacher education programs are highly competitive and only one in every ten applicants is accepted;
* Students take no standardized tests until the end of high school;
* Students have fifteen-minute recesses between classes;
* Compulsory education begins at age seven.
In short, the aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, and not the attainment of higher test scores. And one way the Finns achieve this goal is, as Johnson would like to see in the U.S., by providing equal educational resources to all teachers.
The thrills of teaching come in the moments of truly reaching students, seeing the light bulb go on, exciting and pushing them to make new discoveries. Having my students make higher scores on standardized tests has never been my goal.
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