Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Problems with Teacher Accountability

Teacher "accountability" is the latest thing among politicians of both stripes. Democrat or Republican they both want to insure teachers are held accountable. But held accountable for what?

No doubt teachers should be held accountable for their technical skill, subject matter knowledge, effort, fairness, personal integrity and helpfulness. But holding them accountable for student outcomes as measured by high stakes test results is far more problematic.

That is because teachers typically do not control all, or, in some cases, even most, of the things that influence these test scores. Teachers do not control the effort students put into learning, for instance. Sure, a skilled teacher can increase the motivation of some students and hopefully, as a result, increase their effort. But even the most skillful teacher cannot motivate every student to do his or her best — or even just try. This is especially true if one teaches in a school that serves a community torn apart by violence, unemployment, poverty, drug addiction, dysfunctional families, etc. Even the most skillful teaching cannot reach kids who are sufficiently scared, angry, impoverished, malnourished, high, drunk, neglected, or abused to care about school.

Teachers do not control the general school climate not the amount of backing they get from central administration and the building principal when it comes to maintaining the discipline necessary for learning.Teachers do not control the overall physical condition of the school nor the degree of clerical support they receive. Teachers do not control the amount of time they are required to spend on non-instructional tasks; nor do they control how fairly students with instruction disrupting problems are distributed. Teachers often do not control which teaching materials are chosen nor the fairness with which they are parceled out. Teachers typically do not control the equity of room assignments with some getting stuck in classrooms that are ovens while others are in freezers.

Most important of all, teachers cannot control the quality of parenting kids go home to. Are those parents supportive of the teacher's efforts? That is up to the parent(s.) Do they read to their kids, teach them their letters, numbers and colors when they are young? That is up to the parent? Do they even try to set a good example for their youngsters? That is up to the parent.

O.K., you say, but can't all these things be dealt with by only comparing the results achieved by teachers of the same grade in the same school? No, because no two classes are the same. But what about comparing these teachers over several years? Won't that deal with this problem? No it won't. Suppose, for example, 7th grade teacher A gets an unfair share of students with problems because 7th grade teacher B is friends with the secretary who makes up the class rosters. This favoritism could last for many years. Would it be fair to compare their student test scores? Suppose the school secretary does not like first grade teacher A, but is buddies with first grade teacher B? MIght that not determine who gets supplies and photocopying? Suppose the principal does not give teacher A what she needs because she is old and unattractive, while being overly generous with teacher B because she is the young and hot? These sorts of things can also last for years.

The plain fact is that before we decide to hold teachers accountable, we first have to determine what they can fairly be held accountable for. We also have to consider increasing their control over key variables that influence teaching outcomes. But most of our politicians prefer skipping those sticky steps. They just want to hold these overpaid public servants feet to the fire, hoping all the while that no one carefully considers how fair or wise that might be.

To consider other aspects relating to the evaluation of teachers see http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Delegitimating.html