Evaluating teachers seems to be a pretty hot topic these days (just saw Michelle Rhee* on the Daily Show, and it also was apparently one of the main sticking points leading to the Chicago teacher’s strike earlier this year), but I feel frustrated that the main issues that concern me are hardly addressed.

The issue typically seems framed in terms of lazy unionized teachers who refuse to be subject to any kind of objective evaluation vs. arbitrary reductionist tests which do not adequately reflect students’ needs and teachers’ challenges. But let’s assume math and reading are relatively fundamental primitive but important skills for which basic standards can and should be fairly well objectively and quantitatively established.

Rather, the problems start with the fact that we can’t just give raises to teachers with high-scoring students and fire those with failing students. Good teachers should have positive effects, but we have to recognize where students are starting from. Discussions of teacher evalations seem to intermittently include the qualification that we need to measure ‘improvement’ but without much elaboration.

Only once in an article long ago did I find a discussion of the concerns of high level teachers whose students were already in the upper 90%’s. If a teacher’s raise is tied to raising students’ scores, but students are already getting 99%, how will the teacher get any raises?

A basic assumption might be that scores fixed in a 0-100% range would probably follow an S curve (for depending on some arbitrary varible on the X-axis).

That is to say that demonstrating some change in a contributing variable, such as teaching time/effort, finiancial investment per student, library resources, etc., we should probably expect the most student improvement in the mid-grade ranges, and less student performance change at either extreme.

Mainstream media presentations of this topic haven’t even told me how teacher evaluations would average over changes in time of multiple sub-groups of students in any kind of linear fashion, much less acknowledged these non-linear problems. And these problems are not just mathematical complexities. The curves at the extremities express the greater challenges to improvement that are faced by teachers of under-(and over-)performing students.

Teachers of under-performing students could probably even make strong arguments to deserve even greater compensation per unit of improvement gained, as they probably also struggle against behavioral problems, lack of resources, less familial support, etc.

Michelle Rhee suggested that she simply used common sense in closing ‘non-performing schools’ (i think that’s the adjective she used) and firing incompetent teachers (actually, i really wish i remembered exactly what adjective she used). But this sort of approach completely fails to address the issue, provides no kind of solution, and is exactly why a business metaphor is completely inappropriate to matters of crucial social interest.

If a corporation has a store that sells no products and makes no profit, it closes the store and moves somewhere where hopefully there is demand for its products. They are under no obligation to provide their product to everyone and people are under no obligation to acquire their product. This kind of flexibility is not the case with education and so the business metaphor breaks down.

If one accepts that government has an obligation/interest in educating all its citizens, then discussion of firing teachers and closing schools immediately raises the question of what alternatives will be provided to students in jeopardy. Will students be bussed to better schools? Will class sizes grow or shrink? How will better teachers be recruited?

Thus, proposals to eliminate waste in public school districts address crucial problems of useless government expenditure but they do nothing to advance student involvement and teacher commitment.

Certainly, public school systems need to eradicate the useless chafe that sucked up juicy pension plans while letting down future generations, but all this public teacher bashing and imminent declines in already questionable revenue ratios make it even less likely for quality individuals to choose careers in teaching.

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* She made a few noteworthy points. She claimed evidence shows a quality teacher is the primary factor in student success. She acknowledged poverty is a significant factor, but also claimed ‘we know’ that education is the best means of escaping it.