Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Who grades the teachers?

As the teachers' union and the new governor battle it out in Wisconsin, one critical question seems to be getting ignored. How do we know if someone is actually a good teacher?

Currently, it seems there are basically two ways to evaluate a teacher's performance.

One, you can ask the students. While this may be a great way to judge who is the coolest, nicest, prettiest, funniest, meanest or most boring teacher, I'm not sure it provides much useful insight.

The second option is to see how students perform after spending time in a teacher's classroom. The popular method for quantifying student performance seems to be standardized testing. Okay, great. Now we've got a simple, objective method to grade our educators, right?

Not so fast.

First off, these tests seem pretty narrowly focused on math, English and science. This tends to make schools ignore important subjects like art, music and social studies. Secondly, if you tell a teacher to make sure her kids do well on a test, she will prepare them well for that test. But make no mistake, this is not the same thing as actually being a good teacher. Passing a test and learning are two very different things. Learning comes through experience. Passing a test typically involves cramming a shitload of information into your brain and hoping most of it craps out onto the page on test day.

So where does that leave us?

Well, we can certainly argue about the value of unions in the teaching world. There have clearly been instances where the teachers' union has seemed very slow to adopt meaningful reforms. But do people honestly think that the governors who are cutting education budgets are doing so with the intent to improve education? I don't think so. Wisconsin's Governor Walker essentially dug his own budget hole with tax cuts and pet projects and then turned around and decided to put the blame on teachers.

Do not think for one minute that he has any interest in improving the lives of Wisconsin's children. His move is a purely political one, funded by wealthy business interests, to break unions, plain and simple.

So who is left caring about the kids?

You'd like to think it's the individual teachers. And for the most part, I believe they do care. But at the end of the day, a job is a job and everyone needs to look out for their own interests as well. Sure, you may get into teaching to make a difference, but you still need to put food on the table and make car payments. So as objective as we'd like our teachers to be, they may be distracted by their own self preservation instincts.

Which leads us to the real problem. One that is much bigger than union rights or state budget concerns.

Are we ensuring that kids actually learn what they need to learn? And are our schools even set up in a way that promotes learning?

If you were to create an educational system from scratch, would it look anything like what we have today? Our system was built for an industrial economy that doesn't really exist anymore. Is cramming 30 kids in a room with a single teacher the best way to prepare kids for life in 2020 or 2030? I doubt it.

Budget battles will come and go. But they should never be the battleground for actual education reforms. Let's figure out a common sense way to make sure teachers get paid well without bankrupting states. This really shouldn't be that difficult.

But once that's solved, let's move on the bigger challenge. How do we actually teach?

Anyone have any ideas?

1 comment:

  1. Lots of good questions here.

    I think finding answers to questions like "Are our schools even set up in a way that promotes learning?" and "Are we ensuring that kids actually learn what they need to learn?" are far more important than figuring out how to teach, though.

    Knowledge of educational psychology (including keeping abreast of the latest research) as well as clinical experience both inform and help refine any good teacher's personal pedagogy.

    From what I've seen, with enough education and time in the classroom, figuring out how to teach becomes second nature.

    But what do I know, I'm just a copywriter!