At the risk of channeling my inner Bob Somerby, I still don’t get how many progressives (call me a liberal) approach education (granted, the phrase ‘education reform’ usually foreshadows bashing teachers unions).
Hendrik Hertzberg, in the New Yorker, makes a really important observation about assessing teacher performance (italics mine):
…measuring things like which teachers are good is extremely problematic. How do you measure which are the good teachers, short of placing a philosopher of education (or a senior fellow from the Heritage Foundation) in every schoolroom to take notes? Well, you can do it “subjectively,” by having principals or other authority figures make the evaluations, or you can do it “objectively,” by having kids take tests and comparing the results to I’m not sure what–last year’s results? how other, similarly situated kids are doing?
Either way, you’ve got problems. The subjective approach opens the door to favoritism, cronyism, and brownnosing. The objective approach means having lots of tests and teaching “to” them, with the inevitable accompanying distortions and creativity-crushing. “Accountability” may weed out very bad teachers, but it’ll also weed out very good ones, who’ll find lines of work that give their talents freer rein.
….Making classes smaller is a totally clear goal, a totally measurable goal, and, conceptually, a totally achievable goal. The same cannot be said of fuzzier concepts like merit and accountability.
Yglesias argues that “creating financial incentives to better fill hard-to-staff positions is going to be a better use of money than creating new positions.” Tracking back the link, it appears that science teachers are one of those “hard-to-staff positions.” As someone who, at one point, seriously considered becoming a high school teacher, I can tell that economics did not influence my decision to remain in science.
It’s not that I’m a particularly altruistic sort. Being a post-doc paid so poorly and was so economically insecure (even without the dreaded prospect of ‘teacher tenure’) that teaching would have been an economic step up for me in many school districts. While there are many reasons why I decided not to go into non-collegiate teaching, after talking to many teachers, two things ultimately convinced me not to do so.
The first reason was that teachers felt they had relatively little control over what they could teach due to ‘teaching to the test’–which, as Hertzberg points out, will be a result of assessing teacher performance (tangential aside: someday, I’ll have to write the post that explains, from a statistical perspective, how impossible it is to accurately–as opposed to precisely–measure teacher performance).
The second reason was…wait for it…class sizes.
I knew teachers who regularly had 150 students in five classes. Not only is it incredibly difficult to teach with 35 kids per class (it essentially becomes crowd control), but teaching them well becomes much more difficult. Consider something as simple as a homework assignment. One homework assignment for 150 kids, if it takes four minutes to grade each assignment, is ten hours per week–and that’s on top of all the other things teachers are expected to do. That kind of ‘drive-by teaching’ wasn’t the kind of teaching I wanted to do–and I had other options.
Setting up class size in opposition to hiring is a false choice, for that means that we’re less likely to attract teachers with other options.
Sometime, I’ll have to write the post that explains, from a statistical perspective, how impossible it will be to accurately–as opposed to precisely–measure teacher performance.