What is the Difference Between a School and an Eli Whitney Musket?

June 3, 2009

The answer?

One is made up of essentially identical interchangeable parts, the other is not. Yet according to a new report issued by the New Teacher Project, we treat them both the same.

There is broad consensus, you see, that one factor above all others affects the kind of education that a child will receive: the quality of their teacher. In that sense, teachers are the farthest thing from interchangeable parts imaginable because if you take one teacher out of her classroom at random and replace her with another, chances are you'll get a dramatically different outcome among the students in that classroom. But if you are tinkering with an old Eli Whitney musket and you take out the wheel lock and replace it with a wheel lock from another Eli Whitney musket... voila! Nothing changes.

Pretty elementary stuff, you'd say, right? Only the vast majority of our school policy makers either don't understand it or aren't willing to act on it (and I'm guessing it's the latter). Here's some evidence to support that conclusion, all from the above report which surveyed responses from more than 15,000 teachers and 1,300 administrators in 12 districts and 4 states:

* 99% of teachers evaluated by their administrators on a binary "satisfactory" vs. "unsatisfactory" scale received a "satisfactory" mark
* When evaluations offered more rating options than just "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" administrators still marked 94% of teachers one of the top two ratings and only 1% as "unsatisfactory"
* 73% of teachers surveyed said their most recent evaluation did not identify any areas in need of development
* 41% of administrators say they have never denied tenure to a teacher or refused to renew the contract of a teacher who was on probation

If you looked at those statistics in isolation, you might think that America has one of the most impressive teaching forces in the world where virtually every educator is doing a solid job or better. But if you ask the same administrators and teachers some slightly different questions, it quickly becomes clear that the above statistics are hiding something very important:

~ 81% of administrators say there is a tenured teacher in their school who is performing poorly. (Really?? That means that something like four out of every five administrators who are evaluating teachers give a "satisfactory" rating to someone who they believe is doing a poor job as a teacher!)
~ 43% of teachers say there is a tenured teacher in their building who should be dismissed for poor performance (when I taught, I would have been willing to flip that number around and say that 43% of the teachers in the building should have been dismissed for poor performance, if only there were other teachers available who could do a better job!).

What's the upshot of all of this? When administrators rate everyone the same, it has two tragic effects. First, it means we can't identify the worst teachers in our schools who are failing our children and need to be replaced. But more importantly, in my opinion, it means we can't identify the best teachers either because so many teachers are getting high marks on evaluations that the praise becomes meaningless. And when you have a profession where the truly high performers aren't getting recognized--either on evaluations or in the form of increased pay--you have a profession that will be plagued by low morale and a shortage of high achievers who are interested in entering the work force. Does that sound like the teaching profession in America, generally??

The solution, of course, is to start making headway in identifying what exactly is good teaching, rewarding those who are doing it, and supporting and if need be replacing those who are not. Objective data in the form of how much students are actually learning (see my entry last week for a great example of this) would go a long way towards this end, since it'll take the subjective element out of a principal evaluation that no doubt leads them to retain and mark "satisfactory" far too many nice people who may unfortunately not be doing a good job as teachers.

But here's the rub: our policy makers have been slow to the draw in developing these data systems because of how unpopular it is among teachers unions to separate the good from the bad. Maybe hope is on the horizon, as President Obama pushes for change...

Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.





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