Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

As we awaken to a new dawn in the US, about half of all state schools in England and Wales are being affected by a strike by UK public sector workers.  The right to work will be the single most important issue affecting the public sector — all of us working today.  In the US, as in the UK, the assessment and control methods that are politically sanctioned to evaluate teachers are unprecedented.  And the most Draconian aspect of this almost universal (in the West) re-evaluation and castigation of teachers is that those who will suffer most are the children: their world, particularly if these kids live in socio-economically challenged areas, will fall further into the abyss of the cyclical nature of poverty.

An approach that’s being tactfully admired by the powerful in many US states is the “Impact,” in name and approach more reminiscent of a Terminator movie then a subtle teacher evaluation system.

Sam Dillon, writing for a New York Times that’s more comfortable covering the “accepted” mainstream methodologies of any system of power rather then investigating the reality of things, does a credible job of lining up, for the careful reader, what the challenges this method of evaluation pose for parents, students and teachers.

In his Teacher Grades: Pass or Be Fired Dillon tells us that, “Spurred by President Obama and his $5 billion Race to the Top grant competition, some 20 states, including New York, and thousands of school districts are overhauling the way they grade teachers, and many have sent people to study Impact.”

The Impact is “a centerpiece of the tempestuous three-year tenure of Washington’s former schools chancellor, Michele Rhee.”  This detail is enough to raise concern.  But it hasn’t.  Blindly we march on, seduced by Obama’s Race to the Top, rather then careful criticism of what will likely cause a lot of collateral damage.  I warned against this in Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope.  But, just as the right to work will be the defining issue of our times, collateral damage will be the defining metaphor. Does anyone care?  Why are we so silent? At least in the UK, teachers are taking to the streets.

The Impact is best described as an efficient sorting system.  Some educators  describe Impact this way — efficient  and sorting.  These are accounting terms, not terms mindful of teaching and learning.  The terms follow a trend in education that moves away from a pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment and  towards a business model.  Impact is a business model, not an education model; it aligns with the current goals of many governors and mayors, particularly in New York and New Jersey, two hostile states to the right to work: privatize education.

What’s the problem?

Educators “note that the system does not consider socioeconomic factors in most cases and that last year 35 percent of the teachers in the city’s [Washington] wealthiest area, Ward 3, were rated highly effective, compared with 5 percent of Ward 8, the poorest,” says Dillon.

Impact relies heavily on classroom observation — a good thing.  It has 9 criteria: explain the content clearly, maximize instruction, check for student understanding are some examples used to rate a lesson.  These are good, solid criteria.

The problem with this methodology — and the problem with most if not all methods for evaluating teachers and, at the college and university level, for advising students and, likewise for evaluating professors — is that it measures the students’ capabilities simply from the shoulders up.  That is to say, the whole student is not being evaluated; only reasoning skills, computation and understanding according to a system that leans favorably to accepted classical methods of teaching and learning — delivery and acquiescence in silence — are privileged.   In essence, what is being evaluated is the teacher’s ability to transmit traditional pedagogical methodologies.  But these methods may be way too abstract for some students, particularly if these students come from poorer communities.

We are in fact assessing how well teachers transmit traditional forms of social mobility, negating the realities of certain students’ lives. Before we begin, then, in the assessment model — Impact — we are already rejecting the student.

The Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, says,

It is important to remember that one of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural framing habits, styles of behavior, and particular skills that emerged from patterns of social exclusion; these attributes and practices may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility … These patterns of behavior are seen as a hindrance to social mobility in the larger society.

A system such as Impact comes about, as Wilson tells us, this time using the work of Eliot R. Smith, because “most Americans believe that economic outcomes are determined by individuals’ efforts and talents (or their lack) and that in general economic inequality is fair.”    We could argue that Smith’s pronouncement is now the politics of the day — the attack on the right to work, the dismantling of unions, and the Draconian measures of teacher performance.

“Indeed, living in a ghetto neighborhood has both structural and cultural effects,” says Wilson, “that compromise life chances above and beyond personal attributes.”

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, speaking to Dillon for his NYT article, said, “Teacher have to be parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things” in schools in poor and challenged neighborhoods.  “Impact takes none of those roles into account, so it can penalize you just for teaching in a high-needs school.”  Saunders echoes Wilson.  And I’ve describe this phenomenon quite clearly in Newark’s  South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox.

The solution to our education problems, as I’ve described it, actually lies in Saunders’ description of what teachers are called to do when working in poorer neighborhoods.  In these communities, as I’ve said in Newark’s South Ward, the school, as is The Miller Street School, are an oasis pushing against the chaos found in the streets.  If teachers are parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things, as Saunders says, then we must create, in each school, a hub of support for all these things.

Right now, parents have to move to multiple locations and work through multiple human services departments, filling out form after form, seeing multiple people, more often then not being shoved to yet another office and more forms, more interviews and never really voicing their concerns and problems. This is costly — and it agitates the notion that it’s their fault, that if they worked harder people would be better off.

What if all social and professional services were under one roof?  What if all aspects needed to enable a more graceful, dignified and cogent approach to social mobility were in one place, a hub or mall for social mobility? Isn’t this efficiency? Wouldn’t this cut costs?

I’d argue that not only is this a cheaper approach, but then it would allow us to pool together resources, including the tracking of a student through this system so as to better get a sense of how the student learns — the obstacle and challenges, the conditions for study at home, and so on.

Of course, this would thwart the interest of many governors and mayors to privatize; it would run against the desire of many corporations to extract the poverty dollar from the most needy; it would, in fact, work against today’s trend towards the newest form of governance, inverted totalitarianism. (There are so many examples of inverted totalitarianism, today, that I’m thinking of changing my blog’s title! I’m getting exhausted constantly having to explain it!)

What we need is less Impact.  We need to realize — and accept — that schools in poor neighborhoods are an oasis of hope.  It is this realization that can lead to a conflation of resources — child care and health care, nutrition, family counseling, on the job training, study skills training, even community colleges — under one roof, held together by technology and carefully trained experts — nurses, social workers, first year general practitioners, counselors and teachers — working together.  From this vantage, we can create teacher assessment vehicles that will include master teachers, parents in the community, student evaluations and outcomes and all read against what today we call social mobility. Anything else is failure. Anything else is a genuflection towards the powerful elite that seek to define our lives for us.

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One thought on “Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

  1. Pingback: The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Solutions for a New World in Education « The Uncanny

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