To Trust or Not To Trust

My husband and I had an interesting conversation last week. An innocent question about teacher trust quickly snowballed into something I’ve been thinking about ever since. It went something like this:

Me: What do you think of teachers getting fired or gaining income based on the outcomes of their students’ success? Do you trust that our kids’ teachers are doing a good job?

Husband: I’m not sure, I want to know what our kids are learning and what they should be learning. I want to have some sort of standard; something to prove that they’re accomplishing what they should in the classroom. Standardized testing seems to solve some of that problem.

M: I agree that I want to make sure that our kids are getting quality education, but at what expense? I suppose that we’re not with them all day at school and it’s nice to know what they’re learning.

H: Do you remember some of the teachers that our kids have had? We’ve had some amazing teachers, but we’ve also had a few truly awful teachers.

M: That’s true. We’ve definitely had teachers that were awful. But what do you think of teachers losing jobs if they work in a school where the student population is struggling with issues that are bigger? Like poverty or homelessness. Can we expect teachers to be miracle workers?

And do you trust your dentist, accountant, and doctor more than a teacher? They’ve all been educated; they’ve all had professional training.

H: I trust my dentist, lawyer, and doctor because there’s an outcome that I can see or experience. I don’t always have that with a teacher. Plus, I get to choose my dentist and accountant; we’re assigned a teacher.

M: Does it make a difference if you knew that those standardized tests don’t even make it into the teacher’s hands until a year after students have left that classroom? And that they can have a huge margin of error. They seem useless to me. What a waste of time and money.  Why don’t we trust the judgment of teachers? What message are we sending to parents and administrators?

I continued to prattle on for the next few minutes while my kind husband listened patiently. I’ve never been one for an injustice, but an injustice involving teachers and children—the horror! How do we as a country decide what indicates “success” for a teacher? Data driven outcomes at a macro level seem to be what policy makers and parents want to see. And yes, there are terrible teachers out there. But there are also terrible accountants, doctors, lawyers, and cameramen. But teaching is the only profession that I can think of where success is determined by client outcomes.

Are students being inspired by being forced to do months of test prep? I doubt it. Does inflammatory educational reporting fan the flames of concern among the nation’s parents? You bet it does. If data becomes the only way that we will trust what our children are learning, it’s time to rethink things.

Many of us are studying to become teachers and we will work hard to become the best at what we do. Until our nation’s values about education changes, we will need to support and advocate for ourselves and other teachers.  Good teaching was never easy, but it has certainly gotten harder. Teachers are bogged down by paperwork and other administrative tasks and they have less time than ever for lesson planning and preparation.

Folks certainly don’t become teachers for the excellent pay and flexible hours. They might do it because they love it, feel it’s their calling in life, or simply enjoy seeing kids succeed. We need to hear more teacher voices, we need to teach our own children to appreciate and value teachers. Non-educators need to understand what a good teacher does so that they can understand and appreciate their expertise.  And finally, we need to find consistent methodologies to interpret and measure teacher performance outside of pure student outcomes.

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3 Responses to To Trust or Not To Trust

  1. juniperonjupiter says:

    Hi zoeheriot–thanks for your post! It is strange, isn’t it, how adversarial and almost punitive we’ve gotten about teachers, for folks who are doing pro-social work that is difficult and not well-paid.

    Something you said caught my eye: “But teaching is the only profession that I can think of where success is determined by client outcomes.”

    I think this is starting to happen with hospitals, too, and managed care is driving the change with its insistence on evidence-based practice and statistics, in its focus on the bottom line. The kind of micromanaging that managed care demands is driving down a lot of doctors’ career satisfaction: they are losing some of the autonomy, income, and (some feel) status they have traditionally enjoyed. Interestingly, this is happening at a time not long after large numbers of female doctors have entered the field for the first time; and teaching, too, is a profession with many women. I think it is not a coincidence that most female teachers teach the youngest students, and have the lowest pay of all teachers, while male teachers fill more prestigious high school and college positions, which tend to have higher pay.

    In the meantime, most of our politicians, some of whom are leading the charge against teachers, are still male! I wish they could be held accountable, too.

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  2. Annie R says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective! I found your post to be very interesting. I too have grappled with the question, “how do we as a country decide what indicates “success” for a teacher?” I have a problem with standardized tests and do not believe that they should be the sole measurement of teacher’s success. Unlike doctors and dentists, there are both quantitative and qualitative factors that need to be measured. For example, there might be a 4th grade student in a class who comes from a very low socioeconomic background and can barely read at the beginning of the year. The teacher works with her to the point that she is reading at a 3rd grade level, has developed a love of learning, and has become a competent student. I would argue that this teacher was successful and competent, but the student’s test scores may say otherwise. Would such success even be capable if a teacher must spend months doing test prep? I think accountability is important in any profession, but good or bad test scores, are not indications of successful teachers. I agree that we need to find ways in which to interpret and measure teacher performance, both quantitatively and qualitatively, yet I am unsure if they should be consistently the same across the board. With such diverse schools, populations, and teaching styles in public education across the US, perhaps it would be better to stop attempting to standardize the assessment of teachers?

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  3. I love the structure of this post!
    I, like most people commenting on this post, have critically thought about effective measures to evaluate teachers. I cannot think of an unproblematic way go about this. However, I personally think that having students fill out evaluations is a step in the right direction. I think this would provide teachers and schools honest feedback on how teachers are teaching and forces students to think about what they felt they have or have not learned. These evaluations could be used for other teachers as well. For example, if students in one grade felt like they weren’t learning enough grammar, teachers in the next grade could focus on teaching them a little more grammar the next year. Again, there are problems to this. Not every students learns the same way and there could be students who are lost in multiple subjects. But if that were the case, schools should be equipped to provide additional help.
    I also think assessments could be used to see what exactly students aren’t learning, or learning well. This is a low stakes way of measuring progress and does not put as much pressure on the students to feel like they need to pass and doesn’t make teachers feel unstable about their job.
    What do you think about small assessments to measure progress and teaching skills?
    Thank you for sharing!

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