In order for teachers to be held accountable for the success or failure of their students on standardized tests, one must first establish a starting point from which to establish progress. That is the first problem with the concept of student success and failure as a measure of teacher success. It all stems from a desire to view education as a production line, as a business where the raw materials come in, and at the end, a finished product is the result.
The problem with viewing education as a business with a finished product at the culmination of the education experience is that it assumes that the raw materials – the students – all enter school at the same level. Imagine you are running a company that makes widgets. You have contract for your widget raw materials with both Company A and Company B, because neither company can provide you with enough widgets to satisfy your production demands. You have signed a five-year contract with both companies, and unfortunately, your legal team is a little less attentive than they should be, because there is binding language that ties you into this contract for the duration – no loopholes. It goes along well for the first few months. Company A consistently provides you with excellent raw materials; however, Company B starts to slack after the first two months, and begins to send you sub-standard raw materials that demand a great deal of preparation before they are ready to enter the production line. Because of the contract language, you are stuck using Company B’s raw materials, regardless of their sub-standard quality.
Company A, in the education setting, consists of the parents who prepare their children well for school. They have read to them from infancy; they have sent them to preschool; they have provided them with a wealth of interaction and enriching experiences that have prepared the way for the child to learn. They have counted objects ad nauseum; they have read the same story every night for weeks on end because it was the favourite story; they have exposed their child to music, and art, and creative activities that have broadened that child’s horizon.
Company B, in the education setting, are all the rest of the children. They are the children who come from lives of abject poverty, whose lives are so wrapped up in the struggle to survive that they have no time for self-actualization or education. They are the children who come from families that are rife with abuse, neglect, drug and alcohol addictions; they have no personal security, no sense of safety, and like the child of poverty, have no energy to dedicate to the higher pursuit of education. They are the children of parents too young to parent; they are the children of parents who have no idea how to parent; they are the children whose parents have absented themselves from their childrens’ lives, for whatever reason. Comedian Chris Rock tells a joke about his “cousin”, whose child struggles in school; he says to her in the joke, “If you said more to your child than ‘Mommy be back’, the kid might know somethin’.” Unfortunately, this is all too true. These are the raw materials that the education system has to deal with daily, and has to bring up to the level to where they can actually be taught the basics that they need to know in order to progress through school.
Psychologists tend to agree that a child’s personality is basically formed by the time they are five. Most educators would probably agree that the crucial years are those that lead up to school entrance, and that what happens in those years governs to a great degree what happens afterwards. Unless we are going to hold parents accountable for what happens in those formative years before the child enters the education system, we can’t very well hold the teachers accountable for what happens after that.
As well, there is the issue of school resources. To return to the widget scenario, imagine your company is being compared to another company which also produces widgets. That company has a limitless budget, and buys the highest quality raw materials on the market. Their production line is state-of-the-art, and operates flawlessly from start to finish. Anytime a new piece of technology for widget production enters the market, this company purchases it and incorporates it into the production line, so they are years ahead of the competition. Your company, on the other hand, has to purchase raw materials from the lowest bidders, because you don’t have a limitless purchasing budget. Your production line consists of older employees who are uncomfortable with the newer technologies, mostly because they have limited exposure to those new technologies – you can’t afford to buy every new gadget for the business on your budget. Are the widgets from your company equal to the widgets from the wealthy company? Probably not.
So it is with the education system. Funding is not divided equally among schools, among districts, among states, among countries. One school may have access to all the trappings of technology and up-to-date textbooks; another school, not too far away from the first, may rely on outdated technologies and well-worn, comparatively ancient textbooks because that’s simply all they can afford.
Until the raw materials – the students – enter the system with the same sets of skills, and the schools are provided with equal funding that allows them to provide an equal education for all students, it is simply unreasonable hold teachers accountable for student success. There are too many variables that are simply outside the control of the individual teacher, or for that matter, the individual school. It would be more reasonable to tie teacher accountability to their ability to achieve even moderate success in the face of such overwhelming odds.