Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

Blaming teachers


Now that the Chicago teacher strike is over, I thought I’d add my two cents. Community college teaching, in Illinois or elsewhere, is quite different from the business of elementary or high schools. Even so, teachers understand each other and I followed the story closely.

I was very disturbed by the amount of animosity I encountered on Facebook regarding the teacher strike. Yes, there was quite a bit of support from some populations, especially from parents of CPS kids. Yes, the teachers are professionals and must be open to criticism. But many of the views people have are simply unfair, even outright mean.

This should not be news: teachers in the United States do not receive the same level of respect as teachers enjoy in other parts of the world. Having taught in Europe, I can speak to this directly. Tell people in Europe you’re a teacher and find yourself in a perfectly sensible conversation, often with someone who’s delighted. The most common response you get from an average American is, of course, quite different. It can range from pity to derision, sadness to annoyance. I have actually been laughed at and asked if I don’t regret studying something “more serious”. (Than what? I studied literature and writing. Is that more or less serious than education?)

I want to avoid the cliches of this conversation. It certainly annoys me to listen to people who believe teachers should be selfless and timid zealots. They should “think of students first”, a notion that amounts to some kind of fetishization of innocence, a weird sentimentalization of the learning process. Children do not learn because a teacher is a masochist. Nuns are not “good teachers” because they are poorly compensated and working in the name of Christ. I had plenty of nuns in grammar school and most of them were (pun intended) god awful. They were not, at least from my perspective, masochists. I found them quite sadistic.

I don’t understand the argument that says teachers should be evaluated primarily on the performance of their students (measured by, note, terribly flawed standardized tests, many of them designed for profit). It seems, at first glance, to make sense, especially if you consider that plumbers and brain surgeons are evaluated based on how pipes and brains perform after they fix them. We must admit, however, that brains and pipes are very different from children, and that both the plumber and the surgeon have an enormous amount of control that a teacher does not.

I’ll give you an example from a pair of classes I’m teaching this semester. I handed out a syllabus at the beginning of the term. It contained a week-to-week schedule of due assignments, including readings. On a day when a reading was due, I gave an assessment to see how many students had read and what the rest had gathered from the materials. The results were abysmal. Only seven of forty students passed the assessment. Seventeen of forty had failed to read the whole assignment: only 30% of those who read the book could pass a ridiculously simple test. More than a whopping 60% of students who actually read misunderstood the essential purpose of the material. The lectures and exercises I had planned were useless, as they depended on things the students did not have the skills to figure out.

I have no control over who prepared these students. I have no way of convincing fellow professors to stop passing people who cannot read. I cannot control one young man’s insomnia or another lady’s attention deficit. There is no way I can keep the drunk father student #5 lives with from beating him, just as I cannot help student #23 raise the two kids she had as a teen. I have no way of feeding my classes well, keeping them from sugar and fats, putting them to bed on time, finding them jobs close to home, managing their money, setting their alarm clocks. Yet all of these things affect their performance, first in my class and later on other assessments they’ll face when applying to the nursing school or transfer. I can actually tell you now, having taught this kind of class in the past, that a large percentage of them are in danger of failure. The majority fit a cohort we community college teachers call “at risk“.

CPS teachers face even more variables than these. My students are adults who do not necessarily depend on parents (anymore). The building I work in is, generally speaking, secure, its facilities functional. But CPS teachers say, time and again, that their facilities are less than ideal, in some cases downright awful.

But still, we return to the topic of performance and assessment. Teachers should be held accountable. I agree with this wholeheartedly. As should plumbers and brain doctors. If a plumber is bad–if he cannot ever fix the leak or find the clog–the market should eventually decide not to hire him anymore. And if the brain doctor is bad–if the brains he scrambles come out worse than they were before he stuck his whisk in a skull–no one should go back to him again (especially when he will not return what money an insurance company sent him). And if a teacher is bad–that is, if s/he cannot take the mess we’ve made of our society and turn it into a palace of sharp minds and fingers skilled at filling out the bubbles of a standardized test–s/he should be punished. When students fail, when they come to take these tests strung out or nursing sores, send their teachers to the unemployment lines. That will finally show people how serious we are about student achievement. And the teachers can finally get serious themselves, work in a field where accountability is standard fare. Like banking. Or government. Or, yes, test design.

4 thoughts on “Blaming teachers

  1. Can you suggest an alternative way to introduce accountability?
    Also, I don’t think teachers are met with derision in this country. Those attitudes have shifted. In my peer group (mid 20s), there are many teachers, at all levels, and they are accepted and valued.

    • Essentially, a combination of things. I think individual districts should decide between long term progress reports, outcome based assessments, progress based on observed starting points, possible tests and parent observations. My main wish is a pipe dream: faculty driven assessments that eliminate the testing lobbyist from influencing federal and local laws. I also support increasing teachers’ abilities to hold students back, and I feel that administrators, especially in grammar schools, should have teaching experience. Ideally, they would be actual teachers.

  2. Reading your anecdote about your students being unprepared, I immediately thought of elementary school teachers. I am an elementary school teacher, who is now working with teachers as an instructional coach. I have come into contact with many teachers who have no business being teachers. Imagine a student having an ineffectual teacher every year or almost every year. What do you get? A student who lacks the skills to succeed in college level courses. Yes, standardized test aren’t perfect, but they can show growth. At this point these tests provide a snapshot of what a student can or can’t do. I know that I am going to be seen as anti-union on this, but it is way too hard to fire ineffectual teachers because of union protections. I’m going to be honest, many of these teachers in question won’t change the way they teach, because they know they are protected. I don’t want to get started on the completely useless teacher evaluations that come from the district where I work. It’s very frustrating.

    • Daina, I agree very strongly with your primary premise. There’s a lot to this discussion that I did not get into (including the sad reality that education departments around the country scrape from the bottom of the talent barrel). My primary opposition to standardized tests is that they not be used as primary indicators, and that local educators gain more control over their content and design. I really feel, also, that less emphasis needs to be made on “pass rates”, as the pool of students I teach, all of them high school graduates, are functionally illiterate. Our assessments demonstrate this consistently. What’s worse: they don’t get much better as they matriculate. In college, they often hit a wall, and they hit it hard.

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