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.