I’m realizing once again but in a new light that it’s not enough for teachers to simply strive to be great teachers inside our classrooms. In fact, I doubt it’s even possible anymore in many teaching contexts. There is deep and widespread misunderstanding of what our work is about and what it entails. This misunderstanding, confounded by other separate factors and interests—such as privatization, a failing economy, a widening gap between wealthy and poor—is leading to policies that do not support great teaching and healthy youth.

My mentor from Bank Street College passed me a recent article called “Targeting teachers” by Stanford Professor David Labaree, published in Dissent Magazine, which was very helpful to me in breaking down the roots, nature, and some of the effects of the misunderstanding of teaching. Labaree first puts in historical context the current drive to find a “simple and statistically sound” measure for effective teaching (value-added measures of test scores being the predominant answer to the quest right now). While he says it’s perfectly understandable, he does not believe it is justifiable. Labaree writes:

The problem with this approach is that teaching is an extraordinarily complex and demanding form of professional practice whose quality is impossible to capture accurately in a simple metric. The push to develop such a metric threatens to reduce good teaching—and good education—to whatever produces higher scores on a standardized test. As a result, the value-added measure of teacher quality may end up promoting both the wrong kind of teaching and the wrong kind of schooling.

He then explains the core characteristics of teaching that make it so difficult to measure in a way that is rarely heard anywhere. For that reason, I’m doing a bit of summarizing here, though the entire article is really worth reading.

First, he talks about the fact that students make choices in the classroom—the choice to learn or not to learn. No one can force a child to do anything. Essential to the job of teaching is figuring out what motivates large numbers of individuals with their own interests, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and senses every day.

Then he points out that students are compelled to go to school by various outside pressures, instead of choosing to go. And if they do choose to go, many do not choose to go based on “a burning desire to learn in the formal classroom.” Teachers have weak disciplinary tools at their disposal and are hugely outnumbered by students. So he explains, “Teachers need to develop a teaching persona to manage the relationship with their students.” He describes this persona as being “highly personalized and professionally essential” in how it looks and what it needs to accomplish. He correctly notes that we want kids to look forward to seeing us, fear getting on our bad side and our “teacher look,” and find our enthusiasm for our subject infectious.

Finally, Labaree argues, “Teachers need to carry out their practices under conditions of high uncertainty.” There are so many different ways to teach that meet basic professional standards, and there are many different outcomes we care about—short-term, long-term, fact-based, idea-based, intellectual, interpersonal, creative, physical, etc. Also uncertain is who is the client for teachers—students, parents, society, or the school board who signs the teacher’s contract? He adds:

As a society, we are not of one mind about what individual and social ends we want schools to produce. If we can’t agree on ends, how can we determine if a teacher was effective or not? Effective at what? One goal running through the history of American schooling is to create good citizens. Another is to create productive workers. A third is to provide individuals with social opportunity. These goals lead schools in conflicting directions, and teachers can’t accomplish them all with the same methods.

The article goes on to explain that while teaching is very difficult, it can look easy to the public. Some of his reasons are that it is seen as “an extension of child-rearing” which doesn’t require professional training. Also, everyone has been through school and therefore thinks they know about teaching. The knowledge and skills K-12 teachers teach are skills all competent adults have, so “the impression of ordinariness is hard for teaching to shake…. As a group, teachers are too visible to be inscutible and too numerous to be elite…. They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high-status professions…. Everyone is an expert on education, except the educator.”

I could really quote this entire article. This weekend, the teachers and education advocates who participated in the Save Our Schools March in Washington DC responded in an organized way to the policies, which grossly misunderstand our students’ needs and the nature of our work. The art installations are particularly telling—one that showed 50 boxes, each with a doll inside it, and covered in multiple choice bubble sheets, and another that showed tombstones of creativity, imagination, and critical thinking, and other capacities that are being suppressed by an across-the-board emphasis on a bottom line of increasing students’ scores on standardized high-stakes tests.

I’m left wondering, can our work be measured at all? How much of a need is there really to measure teacher effectiveness? If it is a necessity (or even just a curiosity), why are non-educators crafting these measures? The level of understanding the public and/or politicians have of the nature and complexity of teaching must dramatically increase. Or it could become irrelevant whether those outside the profession truly understand our work if teachers were actually in charge of our own profession.

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