We Won’t Improve Education By Making Teachers Hate Their Jobs

Jeff Bryant

Does this sound like a place you’d like to work?

The work environment is “depressing” … “morale is at an all-time low.”

“It feels like a lot of busy work and hoop jumping and detracts from the work.” “Every move … needs to be documented and noted.”

“We have to respond to feedback given by an administrator who did a one-minute walk through and thought they knew what was going on … but didn’t.”

“There is no time for conversations” … “my salary has been frozen for six years” … “everyone feels like losers.”

Probably not.

But this is how classroom teachers and school principals describe what it’s like to work in public schools.

The comments come from a new survey of K-12 educators nationwide that yielded responses from 2,964 teachers and principals from 48 states. The survey was conducted by the Network for Public Education, a grassroots public school advocacy group founded by public school advocates, parents, educators, and university professors, including education historian Diane Ravitch. NPE recently released the survey findings in a report titled “Teachers Talk Back: Educators on the Impact of Teacher Evaluation” at its national conference in Raleigh, N.C.

Teachers Are Unhappy

The survey findings add strong anecdotal weight to previous statistical surveys of teachers that have found their work dissatisfaction is at an all-time high. A survey from 2012, found teacher job satisfaction has plummeted to 39 percent its lowest level in 25 years, according to one review of the findings.

Findings from a more recent survey, published in 2015, revealed only 15 percent of teachers feel enthusiastic about the profession, and about three in four “often” feel stressed by their jobs.

One likely outcome of this high work dissatisfaction rate among teachers is that many states and school districts are now reporting acute teacher shortages. One major school system, Philadelphia, still struggles to fill teacher vacancies, even as the current school year nears end.

Meanwhile, other reports reveal record low numbers of college students enrolling into teacher preparation programs, foretelling even worse teacher shortages in the future.

Certainly, it doesn’t help that teacher salaries are stagnant. As an op-ed writer in a recent U.S. News and World Report noted, “Teachers haven’t gotten a raise in 15 years.” But poor teacher pay is a chronic problem that doesn’t by itself explain the shortages.

Teacher pension programs are also being chiseled away, but why would even short-timers — such as those coming from Teach for America, whose recruitment is down 35 percent over three years — be discouraged?

Indeed, the NPE survey reveals there are factors other than economics that are making teachers’ work-lives miserable.

New Teacher Evaluations Are A Problem

As an article for Education Week explains, the NPE survey had a specific target in mind: to paint a qualitative, descriptive portrait of the effects of new teacher evaluation systems that are now in place in most schools.

“The new evaluation systems,” according to the EdWeek reporter, “were mostly developed as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition and NCLB-waiver projects” during the Obama administration. The evaluations combine the traditional practice of classroom observations with a heavy emphasis on student test scores. The test scores are fed into a computer-driven algorithm typically referred to as a value-added model, or VAM, which, according to the reporter, “attempts to estimate how much a teacher has contributed to student-achievement growth by factoring in the gains the student was expected to make based on past performance.”

In 2012, the promise U.S. Education Secretary Duncan and other education policy advocates made was the new evaluation process would lead to closing the notorious achievement gap between black and brown low-income kids and their higher performing white and more well-to-do peers. We were told the evaluations would ensure the worst teachers would be weeded out of the system, the best teachers would emerge from the scores, and these revelations would ensure districts could reassign the most effective teachers to schools with the most struggling students.

The theory was never based on evidence.

What Value-Added Subtracts From Teaching

In fact, as a recent op-ed in a Connecticut news outlet observed, “The policies of the secretary, which he carried with him from his tenure as Superintendent of Schools in Chicago to Washington D.C., never achieved the academic gains that were claimed. A 2010 analysis of Chicago schools by the University of Chicago concluded that after 20 years of reform efforts, which included Mr. Duncan’s tenure, the gap between poor and rich areas had widened.”

The VAM process might make sense in manufacturing or agriculture, but in the flesh-and-blood education profession, classroom teachers hate it.

As the NPE survey finds, “83 percent of respondents said the inclusion of student standardized test scores in teacher evaluations has had a negative impact on classroom instruction.” Teachers overwhelmingly complain the evaluations pressure them to focus on test scores to the detriment of focusing on their relationships with their students. Many think the new evaluation systems reflect racial biases, and most think they unfairly target more experienced staff. In other words, a process that is seemingly objective — through the automation of computers — yields results that are similar to inequities that are all too common in many workplaces.

What’s worse, teachers believe the test-based evaluations damage the education process itself. The EdWeek reporter writes, “Teachers reported that they now felt forced to ‘teach to the test,’ instead of planning fun or meaningful units, and spend hours poring over data instead of brainstorming ways to better reach their students.

Evaluating Teaching With A Computer

NPE is not the only organization to reveal the immense distrust teachers have for these evaluations. According to a recent survey, 81 percent of State Teachers of the Year award-winners and finalists strongly disagree with federal policy requirements to use standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

“Parents … should think twice when politicians say they can use complex computer programs to identify and get rid of failing teachers,” warns New York attorney Bruce Lederman in a recent op-ed.

Lederman’s wife, a fourth-grade teacher, was labeled “ineffective” by New York’s VAM evaluation system because she had a student who scored 98 on his standardized math tests. You read that right. The student got two questions wrong on the three-day test but the teacher was deemed ineffective because the computer program gave her a “growth score” of 22 out of 100. You see, the same student scored 100 on his third-grade math test the previous year.

“This shows the danger of relying on complex computer programs that claim to be able to predict performance and rate people’s job performances,” Lederman writes.

Results like what Lederman and others report defy common sense and are causing experts to speak out more forcefully for a reconsideration of these approaches.

A Dr. Frankenstein Moment

“I’m deeply troubled by the transformation of teaching from a complex profession requiring nuanced judgment to the performance of certain behaviors that can be ticked off on a checklist,” writes Charlotte Danielson in a recent opinion column for Education Week. “It’s time for a major rethinking of how we structure teacher evaluation,” she declares.

Danielson is a popular author and education consultant whose books on a “framework for teaching” are often the blueprints for teacher evaluations in many schools. Yet, the NPE survey of teachers finds the model in practice is “cumbersome and exhausting.” Teachers say applications of the framework create an evaluation system in which “snapshots of instruction take on oversized importance as measurements of ability, devoid of context.”

Faced with what teacher evaluations, based on her framework, have turned into, Danielson must be having somewhat of a Dr. Frankenstein moment. Indeed, in her op-ed, she now realizes applications of her methods have led to teaching being “distilled to numbers, ratings, and rankings, conveying a reductive nature to educators’ professional worth and undermining their overall confidence.”

Despite Danielson’s reflective moment, there are nevertheless hangers-on to the belief in test-based teacher evaluations. One of their last hand-holds on the slippery slope to irrelevancy is a recent study of the test-based evaluation system in Washington, D.C. conceived under the administration of former chancellor Michelle Rhee. That study found the higher rate of teacher turnover caused by the more onerous evaluations may have led to more teachers rated “ineffective” who were in turn replaced with teachers who eventually rated “effective.” The “positive” turnover may have been a factor that ultimately boosted student achievement.

But the study of the D.C. evaluation system is nowhere near as conclusive as proponents of the status quo suggest. Furthermore, who can doubt the somewhat circular logic that designing education systems that increasingly emphasize student test scores — which are rather questionable measures of student learning and education quality — may eventually yield higher student test scores? And how does this drive to have effects on the almighty test scores justify abusing teachers rights?

Do This Instead

“It is difficult if not impossible to isolate the impact of a single individual on a student because teaching is a collaborative and developmental process,” write the assessment experts at the website of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, FairTest.org. Their analysis of VAM-based teacher evaluations finds numerous reasons to abandon these systems and no justifications that bear up under scrutiny.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity to lift the burden of these evaluations and develop alternatives based on what makes sense to teachers and what might also bolster student learning.

With the enactment of a new national education policy, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government is now prohibited from requiring states to use student test scores in teacher evaluations. The law provides funding for states to invest in systems that provide better feedback, but the burden of developing these systems clearly shifts to the states. What will they do?

What Danielson now calls for in evaluation systems is a “collaborative evaluation procedure” with more emphasis on creating “a culture within the school conducive to professional learning.”

Classroom teachers themselves have lots of worthy ideas for how to measure their work performance and the performance of their peers. Maybe it’s time lawmakers listen to them?

No one doubts that teachers, and employees of any kind, need to be evaluated and can indeed benefit from an evaluation system that provides supports for getting better. And the public has a right to know whether its tax dollars are being spent on teachers who do their jobs and schools that provide a quality education.

Using student test scores to determine measures of performance might provide us with some reassurance we are not throwing good money after bad, but it’s a false reassurance. And in the meantime, we’re making teachers miserable.

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