Should Teachers be Held Accountable for Low Student Test Scores – No

On a daily basis, a teacher makes more decisions than any other professional. At the high school level and below, teaching is more akin to management than lecturing. No corporation would be taken seriously if its managers had over one hundred direct reports. If that sorry little company then went on to announce that those managers supervised thirty employees at a time, investors would dump the stock (assuming they were silly enough to buy it in the first place). Adding that those thirty employees range from highly competent to borderline “termination track” would have everyone selling short, not to mention pointing and laughing.

The idea is insane, ridiculous, outrageous! How can any one person, however educated and competent, simultaneously challenge those who are gifted, help those who are struggling, and stop those who are a hindrance? It’s impossible, of course, and yet that’s what the average public school teacher is expected to do. Lest I be called a sensationalist, I will add that some schools have small class sizes and sufficient staff, and some affluent neighborhoods have a student body that, in general, understands the white-collar work ethic. However, those schools are in the minority and those lucky enough to teach there should not underestimate the challenges faced by the average teacher.

Teachers as a group have large workloads with high stress and more criticism than thanks. Yes, there are the parents who say, “My kid loves your class,” and the kids who say, “I learned a lot because of you,” but the moments when a teacher hears those words are fleeting. No one will call you into an afternoon meeting to tell you how very important it is that a parent appreciates how you took extra time to help his child. You won’t get any memos about how one of your students mentioned that he learned more in your class than any other. Don’t expect to hear how you need to reflect on all the things you’re doing right and how you’ve become a good teacher. In contrast, you will be reprimanded for every complaint by a student or parent, and you can rest assured that you will hear time and again about how you need to think about ways to improve to address those issues. Is it possible that students and parents are just impossible to please as a group? Is it likely that just as a movie targeted at “everyone” always fails, so too will a teacher who tries to make everyone happy? Yes, of course! But while you and I and my goldfish understand that, school administrators aren’t that bright.

The idea of holding teachers responsible for test scores follows the same logic as the mental health community uses in what it calls “cognitive therapy”. According to what is published in the news media, the goal is to make people more productive by telling them how they are bad and need to change. As if that weren’t enough, the person is then encouraged to think of even more bad things about him or herself that he or she needs to change. In reality, of course, the result is suicidal depression, sheer rage, and a complete loss of productivity. I genuinely believe that the goal is to get the person to commit suicide, and I think the mental health community has an agenda of removing those who are weak from society. By telling people how bad they are and encouraging them to dwell on every deficiency, they make it highly probably that the person will be empowered to solve all of his or her problems by blowing his or her brains out.

The same thought patterns will of course happen when teachers are held responsible for test scores. They are already pressed to be popular while maintaining discipline and upholding academic standards. Now their salary and tenure are going to be tied to the already irrational expectations of the school system? This idea merely adds injury to insult by heaping financial consequences on top of emotional stress. Teachers will not be motivated to perform better by such policies. In reality, they will fell hopeless, angry, unappreciated and nihilistic. Why bother? What does it matter?

At an investment seminar I once attended, I heard something that at the time sounded nuts. “You can’t judge your success as an investor by how much money you lose or make,” said the speaker. “You have to judge your success by how well you traded the plan.” That sounded like a lot of fuzzy feely nonsense at the time, but then again, I wasn’t an investor/trader than. I am now, and I realize that his logic is unassailable.

As a trader/investor, you will be most likely to succeed if you make trades that have a high expected profit (expectation value, if any mathematicians are reading). However, it is possible to make a string of intelligent decisions that, by sheer coincidence, all result in lossess. If you then change your strategy and start doing different types of trades, you are doomed to failure. You were making the best decisions possible in the first place, so changing will only hurt you!

Am I saying that everyone is perfect and no one should change? Of course not. I made some serious mistakes trading that I never intend to repeat. After analyzing my choices in terms of probability and investor psychology, I understand why those strategies were flawed, and (win or lose) those types of trades are something I won’t do again. When I taught, I certainly had room for improvement, and I always considered different ways of doing things. When I tried something new in my class, I looked at my students’ performance and attitude as forms of feedback. However, I was careful not to make the mistake of discarding a good idea because of a nasty group of students or a mistake I made in executing that idea.

People want life to be simple. It’s trivial to judge a teacher by student test scores, as it is trivial to judge a trader by profit or loss. However, such oversimplification will never result in wise decisions. A teacher may very well do an excellent job given the students she has and still have them earn low test scores. Those scores are affected by factors like the students’ background, the physical environment in which the testing takes place, and current events. A teacher could easily have students score unusually low because the pervious instructor did a very poor job, the school’s heater was on the fritz the day of the tests, or a popular student had died the day before. At my high school, everyone was in shock after a student was arrested for killing a classmate’s father. If we had taken exams shortly after that incident, they would undoubtedly have been affected.

“Ah,” say the idiots, “but of course we can make an exception for things like a student crisis that affects the whole school or a malfunction in the heating and cooling system.”

True. But what about the little disruptions, like the fact that Mrs. Jones had a stink bomb set off in her classroom the day of the exam, or the nasty rumor Sally spread about Jenny selling drugs and sleeping with Billy? Sometimes teachers don’t even know what psychological forces are rippling through the student body. What about the famous rap star that got shot during test week? That only affects the classes comprised of students who enjoy rap music, of course.

“Yes, those can all be taken into account!” agree the idiots. “All the teacher has to do is explain what happened”

And then you have no accountability. Teachers can make up any excuse for poor exam scores. There is no meaningful comparison, and the act of basing teacher evaluations on exam scores has become an exercise in futility. While a “no excues” test score policy is unfair, allowing teachers to make excuses defeats the purpose of a standard. There is simply no fair way to judge individuals by something as stochastic as the success of students or the vagaries of the stock market.

It would be hypocritical of me to condemn an idea without offering an alternative, so here is the simple solution: peer review. Have teachers take a day off once in a while, get a sub for their classes, and spend the day watching other teachers (at schools other than their own, of course). Have each teacher observed several times during the semester by different colleagues and at least one administrator. Give no warning as to when a teacher is being observed. If it happens to be on an unusual day when the students are taking an exam or watching a video, it is still possible to critique the teacher’s performance. Watch how well the students follow instructions, how seriously they take the activity, and how the teacher uses his or her time. Have newer teacher observed more frequently, but check up on the old timers too.

If a teacher is making the best effort possible to follow curriculum (given the skill level of his incoming students) and conducting himself in a professional manner, then his students’ test scores will be the best they can be. How that compares to national averages is irrelevant. Of course schools have the right and the duty to hold standards for teachers. Those who could benefit from additional training should receive it, and those who are truly under performing (even given the difficulties inherent in their situation) should be told to improve or change careers.

It’s hard to open your eyes, turn on your brain, and make an honest evaluation of someone’s work. It’s easy to look at a number and say, “this number is bigger than that one!” But when did “what’s easy” become more important than “what’s right”? If schools are taking the “do what’s easy” philosophy to heart, then they are setting a horrible example for students. That spirit of oversimplification wreaks havoc in the business world as well as in politics and legislation. The people who advocate judging teachers by test scores are usually those who preach “personal responsibility”. Unfortunately, they fail to practice it, and preaching will never be sufficient to accomplish the goal of teaching. Clearly, that’s a lesson all too many of us have failed to learn.