Over the last week I have been thinking a lot about the Chicago Teacher's strike; I suppose it's normal for one's ears to prick up at a teacher's strike when one works in Education. Then today I heard a fascinating report on NPR's This American Life, which will repeat tomorrow and is well worth a listen. It's all got me turning over in my mind how school districts might go about tying teacher evaluations to test scores and, try as I might, I can't really come up with a way to do that and be fair to teachers.
In my school, an economically and racially diverse, 5-A High school in North Central Texas, each teacher has a given student in a class of 25 - 30 students, for 90 minutes a day. In 90 minutes, they must convey either the basic core subjects of Mathematics, Social Studies, Science and English or of one of the Elective (and to my mind, no less important) subjects comprising the Fine Arts (Orchestra, Band, Choir, Art, Journalism, etc.). They also handle a lot of the paper-work that is required by the District or State. They deliver their lessons, work one-on-one with students as needed, or in groups; they are "on" for three 90-minute sessions, 5 days a week. A fourth class period, the Conference period, is spent grading, lesson planning, calling parents, tutoring students or making copies. It's never enough time, that Conference period. I never see a teacher leave the campus without a hefty satchel loaded with papers to grade far into the evening hours. They do this while faced with ever-dimishing budgets, stagnant salaries, increasing class sizes and while knowing that their jobs are never really "safe." As far as I can tell, not one of them is in it for the money.
In the now four years I've been here, I have seen tragedy strike one of our student's lives every year, sometimes several students per year. Violent, awful tragedies, illnesses and death, and those are just the ones we see, the ones that are big enough, violent or dramatic enough to hit the public radar screen. I see other, smaller little bits of tragedy around the edges of other students, all the time.
More than 50% of our student population is on the Free & Reduced Meal Program, meaning more than 50% of our students are considered poor.
I'm responsible for much of the data that is reported to the District and State, and the beginning of the school year has me spending time coding Students At Risk - at risk of not graduating. In doing so, I can't help but notice that where I see Limited English Proficiency, Failed Assessment Instrument (the TAKS test) invariably follows.
We have a large population of refugees from a war-torn country on our campus; this week I interacted with a handsome young man who barely understood me, or I him, so limited was his proficiency with English. The State decrees he must be enrolled in school until age 18 or he graduates, yet makes little provision for his success. Not that the ESL (English as a Second Language) department doesn't try, because they do, with extremely limited resources and personnel.
Back in High school science and again in college, I recall learning that if one has a theory one wishes to prove, one must state a hypothesis and then conduct experiments proving or disproving it. This requires control groups, to control the variables. And so I find myself wondering about those evaluations tied to test scores and how the school or teachers could possibly control the variables of students living with domestic violence, grinding poverty, ineffective or absent parents, hunger, parents and/or siblings with substance abuse issues, inferior housing conditions, or poor health. Because, every time they sit down to take a standardized test all those things and others we can't even imagine are perched on their shoulders, and 90 minutes a day seems an awfully small amount of time for a teacher to compensate for their weight. Should test scores be part of the picture in a teacher evaluation? Probably, but I can't help thinking they should be a very small part, because they seem like a very small part of the overall equation.
There are of course always teachers who succeed where others fail, just as there are always those students who succeed despite seemingly impossible odds and indifferent educations. Perhaps instead of blaming the easy target, the teachers, we need to dig deeper into the reasons behind those successes, and into finding solutions for the problems students carry with them every time they cross the thresholds of their schools.