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Take Me To Your Leader

It is currently popular to rebut teacher evaluations by brandishing student test results. "Only 50% of our students were ranked proficient on the Big Test," some Deeply Concerned Public Official will intone. "So how can only 4% or so of our teachers be rated substandard?"

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There are so many things wrong with that construction, not the least of which is the idea that a teacher's single task in life is to get students to pass a Big Standardized Test about reading and math.

But I don't think the folks who are expresing this concern really care about the problem of these phantom bad teachers in school, anyway. And I don't believe they really care, not because of what they are doing, but because of what they aren't.

Let's take New York State. The expectation there is reportedly that 10% of the state's teaching staff will be found wanting. Let's think about what you would do as a state education leader, if you truly believed that 10% of your teaching staff was no good.

Consider first that there are only two possible explanations for that 10%, that tiny mini-mountain of pedagogical incompetence now esconced in classrooms. Either:

1) school leaders hired and awarded tenure to a big bunch of incompetent teachers or

2) school leaders hired 100% competent teachers and somehow broke 10% of them

You see the common thread here. If classrooms are infested with terrible, awful, no good, very bad teachers, then the logical place to look for a solution is to the school leaders who, apparently, keep putting the bad teachers in there.

If we really believed that there were a pipeline spewing toxic teachers into our schools, would we keep endlessly trying to mop up the mess or would we try to find the valve that would simply stop the flow?

We would be developing tools for determining whether a school hired bad teachers or hired good ones and messed them up. We would be retraining principals and superintendents and human resources department so that they were much better at hiring. We would be insisting that school leader training included extensive programs about how to hire good teachers and not ruin them once you have them. We would be looking at which sorts of school environments made teachers better and which sorts made them ineffective. We might even come up with punitive regulations to put pressure on school leaders to be better managers.

Now, I don't for a moment think we have a real crisis in school leadership that is opening this Pipeline of Awful into our classrooms, because I don't believe there's a crisis of awful in our classrooms to begin with. But if someone did sincerely believe that 10% of their state's teachers were no good, wouldn't they be using the approach I've laid out?

I have to conclude that reformsters aren't really concerned about an excess of bad teachers (real or imaginary) in US classrooms, but are instead using the supposed crisis as one more hammer with which to beat away at the teaching profession. If you think I've missed something here, you're welcome to tell me about it in the comments.

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