The United States, despite having a military capable of destroying the Earth 35 times over, is notoriously behind the times on a number of social issues. One of these areas of concern is education. American public school students are simply not being challenged enough. To address this problem, education officials have drafted a number of reforms in the last decade or so – most notably, No Child Left Behind – with the aim of improving education in the country. While most of these reforms have good intentions, many would argue they have created a bureaucratic quagmire that makes an incentive of “teaching to the test.”
While I agree with the objective of standardized education reforms, they have definitely had unintended, harmful consequences for students. Surely, there ought to be some kind of standard and some accountability. The alternative, I imagine, is an antiquated schoolhouse-type education where students learn whatever the teacher happens to know and is willing to teach. There’s no way of measuring how well America’s students are doing without standardization. But those of us who attended public schools know how lifeless this style of assembly-line pedagogy can be. Indeed, many have commented that standardized education reforms may be, despite their good intentions, jeopardizing the quality of education rather than improving it.
But there may be another, oft-overlooked victim of flawed education reform: teachers. The end goal of education is to benefit students, but we must not forget how education reforms affect educators. Recent reforms such as New York State’s teacher evaluations and the poorly implemented Common Core standards are putting teachers in an unnecessarily difficult and unfair position. Yes, they must be held accountable to the tax-paying public. But it seems that teachers are being treated less and less like human beings and more like pedagogical modules in an education machine.
The new teacher evaluation system, Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), gives teachers a numerical grade on their performance, ranging from “ineffective” to “highly effective.” If a teacher fails to make the cut, he or she gets the boot. Once again, the intention is good enough – holding teachers accountable for their jobs. But at the same time, the approach is coldly impersonal and quite unfair. One of the problems with this system is that 20 to 25 percent of a teacher’s score is based on students’ performance on state exams. This might seem like a reasonable idea at first glance, but in reality, it’s highly miscalculated. To begin with, there are a million factors that could affect a student’s score on a state exam – lack of sleep, general apathy, scantron art, nerves – that have nothing at all to do with a teacher’s effectiveness. There’s also the question of whether the exams are even an effective measure of student progress at all. The system simply fails to account for these factors, the most problematic of which, I think, is student effort. As the saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it study trigonometry.”
The reason for why some students do poorly in school usually has something to do with home life. Students who grow up in a stable home with parents that value their education will excel. Students with a troubled home life are less likely to succeed, even if they have the best teacher on the planet. If the government wants to fine-tune their evaluation system, I suggest they draw up parent evaluations as well. Parents gain points for helping children with assignments, communicating with teachers, working with them to improve their child’s performance, etc. They lose points for whining to teachers about their child’s grades (or threatening to sue teachers over their child’s grades), not making any effort to help their child learn, or contributing to a home environment that is bad for learning. Parents are a key part of the formula for student success, but teacher evaluations fail to account for their contributions or lack thereof. The evaluation system as it stands places an unfair amount of responsibility on the teachers themselves and not enough on students and parents.
The Common Core is exacerbating these problems. The reforms have been quite controversial among parents and teachers, but the most agreed-upon fact is that the implementation has been an absolute mess. Last year’s NY state exams were the first standardized tests to be aligned with Common Core. Inexplicably, students’ scores plummeted throughout the state. It’s almost as if teachers did not have enough time or resources to adapt to the curricular changes. In some districts on Long Island, some parents are even encouraging their students to opt-out of the new Common Core aligned state exams. This could hurt a teacher’s score if his or her gifted students decline to take a test. It is not difficult to see how all of these factors can unfairly hurt a teacher’s evaluation. Thankfully, the New York State Assembly has voted to delay the use of Common Core aligned exam scores in teacher evaluations for two years.
The primary goal of education reform is to improve the outcome for students. But in seeking these objectives, we must not neglect the fact that teachers are people too, not Olympic robots that can jump through bureaucratic hoops just to keep their jobs. If we really want to improve education in the country, we need a more comprehensive and sensible approach that considers the contributions of parents and student initiative instead of singling out teachers for every bad grade.