Posts by Kelly Grace

Undermining the Teaching Profession

Teachers are at the center of the discussion on education reform and most will agree that teachers are a vital part of education and that the role of the teacher impacts learning in the classroom. At the heart of the testing and standardization movement, central to education reform, is how to determine whether teachers are effective and positively impacting student learning. Several approaches have attempted to “solve” this problem using data revolving around student test scores. However, defining highly effective teaching and teachers proves to be a complex problem that is not easily solved with numbers and statistics. In The Life and Death of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch argues that the push to assess teachers based on student test scores and to apply punitive consequences or rewards based on these scores is debasing the teaching profession and undermining education.

Diane Ravitch convincingly argues that well-trained professional principals who hire, evaluate, and give tenure to well-trained professional teachers should run schools. She contends that teaching is one of the few professions that allows for people outside of the field to evaluate effectiveness of the professionals in the field. Few would agree that doctors or lawyers could be hired, evaluated, and fired by someone with no medical or law training. Yet, this is what is happening in schools. Yet, it is not only the question of who is responsible for the evaluation of teachers, but also what even defines a highly effective teacher and how this could be measured.

While some argue that the way to ensure that education is filled with highly effective teachers is to hire anyone with a college degree, but no teaching credentials, and retain teachers who increase test scores, Ravitch contends that improving teacher training programs and equipping teachers with a cadre of support and coaches would elevate the profession of teaching and bring highly educated teachers into the field. Linda Darling-Hammond, a scholar and leader in the field of teacher education, supports the view that teachers need to be seen as professionals and should be supported, educated, and well trained and that the era of data, testing, and standardization are eroding education.

In fact, nations that lead in international test scores, such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea support a respected teaching profession with high standards for entrance into teacher training programs, and extensive pre-service experience and mentoring in classrooms. While these aspects of the teaching force in these countries are acknowledged, many countries, which are looking to reform their education systems, including the United States look to easier solutions such as standardized curriculum, or simply claim that the success of these education systems are a mystery. Addressing the field of teaching and teacher training programs is a more complicated approach to improving teacher effectiveness than the assumed, and misleading, straightforward approach of using student test scores to determine who are “ineffective” teachers and firing them.

The reality is that those who are most effective at assessing teachers are those who were formerly teachers themselves and have moved into administration. What is lacking is respect and trust in the experience of principals to hire, support, assess and fire, if necessary, teachers. As Ravitch points out, test scores of students are unreliable as they vary from year to year, and when test scores are used as the only measure of teacher effectiveness, teacher success varies from year to year. There is no single measure to define teacher effectiveness. Teaching is dynamic and many of the ways that teachers support and teach students cannot be measured on a standardized test. To look for a single quick fix to education alienates and undermines excellent teachers and the field of education.

References

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

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Dreaming big: Diane Ravitch can talk educational policy form, but walking it out is a different story

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The audience packed tightly into Lehigh University’s Baker Hall on Tuesday February 10th in anticipation of hearing Diane Ravitch’s controversial approach to stifle our government’s current efforts towards school reform. Ravitch presented her argument through a witty self-debate that vehemently defended the American public school system and fought against any interventions that posed to threaten it such as privatization, choice/voucher systems, and the establishment of charter schools. Her reasoning was compelling: transforming education into a for-profit, business-like industry turns students into commodities, encourages efficiency and money over student innovation, and attempts to, in her eyes, inaccurately quantify the abstract character of intellect through the use of standardized measures. She also argued that permitting school choice through voucher systems would not result in academic competition between schools that would increase quality of education, but rather leave schools’ disparities and children’s education largely unchanged. This would be likely due to the lack of knowledge and/or interest from low socioeconomic families in changing their children’s schools, the inaccessibility of transportation for the students across towns, the lack of seating available in better schools, and the insignificant amount of vouchers available compared to the extensive needs of many districts.

Ravitch also considered charter schools a major threat to the success of the public education system, pointing out that not only do charter schools students not perform any better than regular public school students on assessments, they have also deviated from their original missions of helping the neediest students to becoming specialized academies that are in many cases operating as an industry and luring away the most motivated students through their attractive, creative programs. In this way, charter schools continue to foster segregation among students by collecting money from states for their newly specialized programs for specialized students, leaving public schools to suffer with the most challenging and expensive heterogeneous student body, including the learning disabled and non-native English speaking children- and to do this under increasingly restrictive funds.

While these arguments are neither epiphanous nor unfamiliar to educators, Ravitch was able to make her position unique by the sheer scope of her perspective. While teachers struggle every day in the classroom to find better, more effective ways to improve their students’ education, Ravitch acknowledged that this struggle is futile on the individual level because the issues hindering academic success remain much bigger than the classroom. Zooming out past a classroom, a school building, a district, and even a state, she posited that the real sources of our current academic system’s failure lay in macro-level influences such as self-interested business powers, misled government policy, and major inadequacies in social services contributing to a lack of academic resources, poor mother and child healthcare, and persisting poverty. Ravitch not only challenges, but places blame on these dominating, powerful overhead forces like private corporations and the federal government that she herself once worked for.

The way Ravitch uses language is her most powerful tool. She purposely chose to present her speech with a dramatic, igniting vocabulary, claiming that she wants to ‘destroy’ the current education reform, that we are ‘failing’ to defend our public schools, we are inhumanely using ‘fear’ and ‘punishment’ to incentivize better assessment scores, that business elites have ‘no place’ in public education, and that for-profit charter schools should be ‘banned by law’. It is this fearless, defiant attitude that separates Ravitch from the masses that agree with her, but it is also the quality that has her labeled as a radical.

She insists that the problems that current education reforms are designed to attack, such as low test scores, are not the true problems at all, but rather the negative consequences of much larger underlying causes such as under-resourced schools, under-trained teachers, poor social services, poverty, and poor health. And while I absolutely agree that these struggles inhibit student’s performance as well as their wellbeing, Ravitch’s suggestion to address these great forces are just as grand as their scale. Ravitch is absolutely correct that a poor, malnourished child attending an under-resourced school is going to face overwhelming barriers to academic success and benefit little from privatization, voucher systems, or charter schools. However, how exactly she plans to eradicate global crises such as poverty and hunger and persuade the federal government to significantly increase funding to public education and improve social services, I have no idea. The importance of addressing these crises is immense, and I do not think anyone is willing to dispute that. However, I would like to ask Diane Ravitch how she plans to practically overcome these barriers to educational equality and success, and if stifling current governmental reforms is just the place to start.