The new school year offers teachers an unprecedented opportunity to prepare their students for college or career, but also the real possibility of losing their jobs. Both situations are guaranteed to engender performance anxiety. Let me explain.
The Common Core State Standards that have been adopted by 46 states are designed to help teachers create lessons plans that focus on standards that are fewer in number, higher in substance and clearer in content than those that existed before ("What Every Child Can Learn from Kentucky," Time, Sept. 30). I hope that teachers will regard them as targets rather than as straitjackets. If they are implemented properly, teachers will still be able to be as creative as ever.
But that's a big if. As long as evaluation of teachers depends heavily on off-the-shelf nationally standardized tests, teachers are on thin ice. That's because the quality of the evaluation system is of no concern to the courts. Even a bad system passes muster as long as it is applied equally to all teachers. The record shows that courts in this country historically have refused to overrule the judgment of school boards when a teacher has been fired for unsatisfactory performance ("Unfairly Fired Teachers Deserve Court Protection," Education Week, Sept. 17). The only way a fired teacher can prevail is if the fired teacher is a member of a legally protected class, and can prove that the termination was the result of bias or discrimination.
This point cannot be emphasized too much because the first year that any evaluation system is introduced is bound to result in unexpected surprises. Kentucky found this out when it implemented the Common Core standards in math and English in Aug. 2010. Only the most enlightened principals and superintendents prevented a fiasco. But how likely is it that all teachers can count on this support? As I've written often before, there are administrators who will seize on anything to get rid of teachers they don't like for one reason or another.
With teachers unions losing membership, as in Wisconsin, there is little reason to believe that pressure can be brought to bear on abusive principals ("Wisconsin Union Mutiny," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19). The best hope is the development of accountability tests that are able to distinguish between well taught and badly taught students. But I doubt that will happen because testing companies want no threats to their monopoly.