The CTU Strike: Facile Reliance on Evaluation Won’t Work

Reading responses to the CTU strike has dismayed me: that there is so much hostility directed at teachers and their unions in a country where the path to middle-class success used to be understood as a good public education, but which is now directly under attack from a shrieking horde of carpetbaggers and rent-seekers. (Thankfully, the good folks of Chicago seem to be squarely behind the CTU.)

I’m stunned too by the  unquestioning reliance on the notion that teacher evaluation is the key to resolving the supposed crisis of public education.  When so much remains to be done for school students how can evaluation, a poorly understood notion at the best of times, become the centerpiece of reform? And indeed, given the pedagogical controversies that surround testing as a means of evaluating students, how can those scores be turned into a vehicle for evaluating their teachers? If someone had suggested to me that my 8th grade teachers be fired because of my scores in tests that year, I’d have been shocked; their teaching had nothing to do with my poor performance. And the idea that Aziz Akhtar, my high school chemistry teacher–a maestro whose explanation of the structure of benzene rings attained an almost poetic quality–should have been blamed for my slacking off and scoring poorly in the 11th grade chemistry exam fills me with horror.

What a student ‘gets’ from a teacher is not the kind of thing that is easily measured in quantifiable scores; more often than not, if a teacher is to be evaluated, it is best done by another teacher, by a process of observation, peer mentoring, and consistent, constructive feedback and criticism. Teaching is part science, part art; we are still a long way from understanding how learning proceeds and how teaching succeeds. To shoehorn this process into a ready-made quasi-Taylorist template is sheer folly. If school reform is to be carried out, it will be a necessarily slow and expensive process, and not one that can be hurried along with a slap on its rump from Michelle Rhee and her cohort.

Note: I’m often asked, ‘Would you like to teach in schools’? (i.e., high school or lower). My answer has always been, ‘Not on your life.’ It’s too hard: I simply cannot imagine dealing with the kinds of issues school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. (Disciplinary for instance; I like dealing with students that are a bit more ‘mature’, ‘more adult’). Selfishly, I would like to be able to teach material that sometimes impacts my so-called ‘research.’ Thus, I stand back, and admire those that can take it on. I’ve met plenty of school teachers over the years and I’m impressed by their grace under fire, their careful navigation of the shoals of disciplinary issues, their deep commitment to their wards, their working in poorly equipped and funded school districts. Right from the time I was first offered an opportunity as a substitute teacher in Newark, NJ, I have turned away from school teaching. It’s fundamental to our society, but on this one, I have let others take the bullet.

2 thoughts on “The CTU Strike: Facile Reliance on Evaluation Won’t Work

  1. It’s “teacher” evaluation that is important. Life is hard and a lot of jobs are hard. I just watched another 6 people get sacked yesterday. Young, expecting parents, etc. it’s not easy for anyone. I generally agree that there should be a better way to measure merit. I keep waiting for teachers to propose it, but I think that I will be waiting for some time. In the absence of said proposal, we are left with a blunt instrument.

    No measure of performance at all is not only unacceptable to me, it’s unacceptable to the majority of Americans, and even the grey lady gets it, which to me, is shocking, but very telling. When the most prominent left-leaning paper in the country weighs in, that is saying something. The only people who disagree are those left of the nytimes, a feat that is not easy to accomplish.

    I have met teachers that can’t even speak properly. One of them was an English teacher! That’s a tragedy. And she is still there! There are so many excellent teachers, that bad ones have to go, for the benefit of the others, and the children.

    Yes, poverty is a huge factor. That simply doesn’t give people a free pass. I am not against teachers, I am very much for them. I am VERY against the protection of bad teachers. When will the good teachers tell us how to measure teachers? When!

    1. JR:

      You will find plenty of answers at Diane Ravitch’s site: http://dianeravitch.net/

      For information on her: http://dianeravitch.com/

      A very good post by her: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/how-and-how-not-improve-schools/

      There are some presumptions in all your comments that I cannot disabuse you of in these comments. Reading someone more eloquent and informative than me might help.

      You might also want to read this excellent post by Corey Robin: http://coreyrobin.com/2012/09/12/why-people-do-hate-teachers-unions-because-they-hate-teachers/

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