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