Undermining Teachers

Teachers can make a wonderful and meaningful contribution to the lives of their students. Yet two institutions that support the ability of teachers to do their best in their profession, namely tenure and teacher’s unions, are being directly and sometimes deviously attacked.


Teaching is a wonderful and a very stressful and difficult job. To face the stress productively, you need commitment, creativity and control. To commit yourself to put in the long hours, and not short-change yourself and your students, you need to feel valued. You need a sense of responsibility and relationship with the students. To meet the educational and social-emotional needs of a diverse population of students, you need to be creative. You need to create lessons designed or at least adapted to the specific people you teach. Feeling creative turns a stressful situation into an opportunity. Feeling creative also motivates commitment—the two work together. But without some control over the curriculum and how it is taught, commitment and creativity are impossible. You need a sense of control in order to teach self-control and discipline to students. A teacher who feels powerless cannot empower students.


Yet, this is exactly what is being asked of teachers. I was appalled recently when someone I respected said teacher tenure undermines education. This person was repeating back to me opinions and evidence manufactured specifically to undermine teacher power. Lawsuits in New York and other states are being adjudicated and hyped in the media claiming that tenure undermines a school’s ability to provide the sound basic education guaranteed by the state constitution. They say that teachers have a greater impact on student learning than “any other factor a school can control.” The claim is clothed in terms of social justice and equity, that students in poorer neighborhoods are most likely to bear the burden of bad teachers.


Why talk about “factors a school can control”? Is that one way to eliminate discussion of inequitable systems of school funding or systemic racism or sexism? Because if the concern is with social justice or helping people escape poverty, why sue the state over tenure? Why not sue the state for it’s inequitable school funding?


The reason is that the attacks on tenure are really attacks on teacher unions. Diane Ravitch has written about how former members of the Obama administration are working together to undermine the power of unions. Teacher unions are one of the few big unions left in the US. They give teachers some power over working conditions and how they are compensated. Without unions, workers would be at the mercy of their employers and tenure for teachers would never have been established. Tenure gives teachers more security in their jobs and thus be better able to focus on meeting student needs and thinking independently.


One factor a school could manage, if the state allowed it, is creating a supportive learning community that fosters teacher creativity, control and, thus, commitment. Instead of taking away teacher power, you need to give teachers more of it. You can’t punish or threaten teachers, or anyone, into being creative and powerful. You have to develop a supportive atmosphere where teachers are given power and mentored into understanding how to use it. If you want to sue the state for depriving students of a sound education, sue the state for militating against teacher commitment and creativity.


If you worry that giving teachers more power would enable them to not do their jobs responsibly, then give the students more power, too. Make the school more democratic. When teachers have a meaningful relationship with students, they are better equipped and motivated to do their jobs well. If you worry that teachers are not trained enough, then increase time for teacher development and mentoring.


The powerlessness that teachers feel is made worse by the new teacher evaluation systems that are being initiated in New York and other states, which are based 50% on standardized test scores. The system is fear based. It is not only conceptualized as a way to force teacher compliance with fear of losing one’s job, but is based on a faulty system of assessment. Standardized testing is destructive and inequitable; more and more parents are choosing to opt-out of testing and the Obama administration claims it will find ways to reduce it. How can you talk about increasing equity by measuring it with inequitable methods?


You can’t improve education by scaring teachers into feeling powerless. It is not only teachers who will suffer but all of our children and eventually all of us. Parents and teachers are already reporting increasing levels of anxiety in (themselves and) their children. You can’t educate children to be clear thinking, independently minded, responsible citizens by undermining a teacher’s sense of creativity, independence and security.

Value-Added Models in Education and the Value of Terminology

One way to improve education recommended by many “reformers” is the use of “value-added models” or criteria to evaluate teacher performance. If you’re not familiar with the concept of value-added models in education, it means, in practical terms, that teachers are judged by how much their teaching improves a student’s scores on a standardized test from the beginning to the end of a year. Certainly, it is fairer to judge a teacher by comparing the scores of a particular class of students over time than simply comparing end of year scores for all students across all classes of a certain grade and different schools without a baseline. The composition of classes, the level of student prior knowledge or even familiarity with the English language, and so many other factors may vary greatly from class or school to school. This makes it extremely difficult to actually assess how much one class of students has learned in the course of a school year compared to another, and even more difficult to determine how much the teacher is responsible for that learning. Many supporters of value-added models argue for their position by correlating a student’s potential increase in test scores with an increase in future earnings. But think for a minute about just the terminology. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds it totally offensive to speak of “adding value” to students. As if you could (or should) monetize a person’s worth, like you monetize a piece of merchandise. We all know, I hope, what happens when we think of people as merchandise.


As educators, you can’t say, “I didn’t mean it like that.” Whether you mean it like that or not, the imagery of “value-added” turns students into items of production with a dollar value at the end. And I think the imagery anyone uses is not random; it reveals the perspective a person is taking on an issue.


A teacher’s attitude towards a child’s ability influences how well that child will learn in the classroom.  Likewise, how a culture thinks about and acts towards it’s young people will influence not only how well they learn and develop as teenagers but how they will think of themselves throughout their lives.  What does a child feel when treated as merchandise by “its” culture? How does a “product“ treat a “product”? I don’t think I’d want to walk down a street filled with people who think of themselves and others primarily in terms of monetary value. It would be too dangerous.


Some may argue, “Ok, the terminology is bad, but the reality is helpful. Even you admit that value-added evaluations are better than the alternative of not using a baseline.” It’s better than the alternative but it’s not good enough, especially if we want the goal to be educating students to be clear thinkers able to participate successfully and ethically, even compassionately, in their communities as citizens, workers, friends and neighbors. Value-added tests are not effective assessments, and in terms of educational practice they have too many negative side effects.  Any dependence on a standardized test as the central vehicle to judge learning or evaluate a teacher is flawed, even when the terminology used to describe the value of the tests is not offensive.


Value-added models are derived from business practices. For a business, it might be considered good procedure to fire a third of the workers when the business is not making a profit. It might also be good financially to fire the lowest performing students and teachers to raise the “efficiency” of a school system. I’d like to say that this won’t occur, but isn’t that one of the purposes of value-added models? Teachers adding the least “value” to their students are being threatened with losing their jobs; and if the claim by Diane Ravitch and others is correct, the most “problematic” students in some non-public schools, are also being “fired” or pushed out.


I’m heartened by the outcry against the use of standardized tests to assess students and hold teachers accountable, but where is the outcry against the dehumanizing mentality of “adding value” to students?