Guest post by Rachel Levy:
Andrew Rotherham recently wrote a column in Time advocating for parents' choosing their children's teachers. Some of the commenters at Joanne Jacobs' blog have some valid criticisms. Jacobs' summarizes in saying:
Of course, if all parents investigate teachers' reputations and request whoever's considered best, this doesn't work.
While I could make the same case against it, I want to take this criticism a step further. First of all, parents may not make the best choices for their children. Not every parent is an education expert, and they may choose based on irrelevant criteria. They might choose a teacher based on the color of his skin or based on her having an accent. Or they might choose based on the simplest and most convenient index available: test scores.
That being said, it would be disingenuous of me if I didn't acknowledge, as Jacobs does, that savvy parents already use their influence to steer their children towards certain teachers and to avoid others. My parents did this for my sister and me; I, no doubt, would do this for my own children.
I also think it's important that parents have a say in where and with whom their child is placed. I appreciate the caveats Rotherham offers about publishing teachers' VAM scores and his sound advice regarding how to find out more about the culture and style of teaching in particular schools.
However, I don't like the idea of modeling teacher or school choice after the process used to choose a car to purchase as Rotherham seems to (Who, exactly, is the car supposed to be here? Speaking of treating teachers like widgets. . .), but I think there's something to be said for making sure that your child is properly matched. I also don't deny that in some cases, the problem isn't one of matching, but one of someone who shouldn't be in the classroom. Even under the best possible working conditions, I've seen this be the case.
What then should be done? My kids' school does something that's in between. Towards the end of each school year, the school sends parents a form with about four questions on it which ask parents and guardians to describe their child's strengths, weaknesses, personality, etc. The staff and faculty then work as a team using what they already know about your child (especially if the child is already a student at the school), the dynamics with their peers, the information the parent provides, what they know about the style, strengths and weaknesses of each teacher to form each class and to place each student.
Honestly, and this could be a lucky coincidence, my kids have yet to be mismatched. Ultimately, this process allows for professional judgment and parental judgment. It means the school is not only hearing the parent voice but that they're taking it into consideration, using it to inform the decisions they make. I have seen parents request class changes during the year and those are usually honored. I have heard of parents' requesting teachers their previous children have had before and I think that's usually honored, too. This may even be encouraged as it means the teacher already knows a family.
The placement process is emblematic of all of our other experiences at this school. As parents, my husband and I are always consulted and we always feel that what we say matters. We don't always do what they suggest and sometimes we do what they suggest even though we're reluctant to, but we usually follow their advice and we're almost always glad we did. Either way, we always work together with administrators, staff, and faculty as a team.
The other thing I like about this system is that it doesn't leave behind children whose parents aren't involved in their education. If a parent neglects to complete that form, it's unfortunate and may put their child at a disadvantage, but at least the teachers, principals, counselors, and social workers' judgment is there to fill in the gaps--there is some safety net for children with less involved parents. Unfortunately, children with parents who aren't making good, or any choices, for them are often left to chance in straight-up school choice systems.
Otherwise, what bothers me most about education, schools, and teachers as cars to be chosen via Consumer Reports'-style ratings (as much as I value using Consumer Reports for making purchase decisions) is that it reduces every place not just to a marketplace, but to a zero-sum, competitive line of rankings from best to worst. This isn't even how people choose cars. Furthermore, my kids' school isn't a car dealership and I don't want it to be run like one--what an utterly uninspiring, bleak, and crude vision of the teaching and learning process.
During his opening of school remarks, a principal I once worked for ( he was young and energetic, mind you) conveyed to the faculty the magnitude of the compact between parents and educators. Every day, he told us, parents entrust us educators with the people they care about most in the world, to undertake one of the most important processes of their young lives: their education. This is a grave and awesome responsibility that educators to need to own and fulfill.
Now, that's inspiring. Above all, the educators who get that are the ones I want teaching my children.
Rachel Levy is a writer, teacher, and parent who lives in Ashland, Virginia. She has taught middle school, high school, as well as elementary school-aged children, preschoolers, and adults. Her education writing has appeared at TeachHub.com, The Washington Post's "The Answer Sheet," and Truthout. She normally blogs about education at All Things Education and is a contributor to The Core Knowledge Blog, Blue Virginia, and So Educated.