On November 4, an issue will appear on Missouri’s ballot regarding education of Missouri students. It will read as follows:
Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:
• require teachers to be evaluated by a standards based performance evaluation system for which each local school district must receive state approval to continue receiving state and local funding;
• require teachers to be dismissed, retained, demoted, promoted and paid primarily using quantifiable student performance data as part of the evaluation system;
• require teachers to enter into contracts of three years or fewer with public school districts; and
• prohibit teachers from organizing or collectively bargaining regarding the design and implementation of the teacher evaluation system?
In the last few days, I’ve seen at least half a dozen articles focusing on the tenure elimination portion of this amendment. While tenure is important, this is very frustrating to me. Tenure is but one of the four parts (bullet point #3) of the proposed amendment, and it is a major hot-button topic among citizens. As such, this particular post is going to ignore that point almost entirely, and I will address it in a different post.
This initiative didn’t come from the Missouri legislature. As a matter of fact, most of what is addressed in the proposed amendment appeared before either the Missouri Senate or the House of Representatives within the last three years, and was defeated in committee. This tells me that the legislature did not think it fit to put before voters. The initiative now comes to us through an independent petition effort put forth by Teach Great, a not-for-profit organization that wishes to reform education. The group claims that the amendment would provide accountability for student progress, provide local control of teacher contracts, and support great teachers. Basically, accountability would come through evidence of student progress on a standardized test that is developed by the district and approved by the state (that’s where “local control” comes in). Support of great teachers is done through eliminating the possibility of tenure for teachers who don’t already have it. Teach Great is funded to a large degree by one person, Rex Sinquefield. I’ve given one article, but look him up if you’d like to know more about him.
When petitioners stood outside Walmart asking for signatures, their script consisted of something like, “Would you like to sign a petition to get rid of bad teachers and support good ones?” Why, sure, who wouldn’t want that? Think about it, though…who actually takes the time to read the verbiage on the petition, especially on their way into or out of a store, when most are in a hurry? Tens of thousands of signatures were obtained for this petition based on little more than the vague promise of better education, with very few people actually aware of the details.
Let’s talk about the details, then. To me, this amendment is about undermining local control, putting teachers in a position where they have to fight for their jobs every 1-3 years, and judging the quality of a teacher by looking at their students’ test results from one test taken on one day (see comic above). I fail to see how this amendment achieves any of the goals Teach Great claims, and I disagree with nearly everything on their website.
The first bullet point says the amendment will “require teachers to be evaluated by a standards based performance evaluation system for which each local school district must receive state approval to continue receiving state and local funding.” Right now, the standardized tests that are available cover math and language arts for elementary and certain areas of math, language arts, science, and history at the secondary level. There are no state-approved tests that have been developed for social studies or science for elementary students, and there are no approved tests at any level for such subjects as art, music, foreign languages, or physical education, to name a few. These tests would all have to be developed at the district level and approved by the state. This means every district would have to create a standardized test for every class they offer, at their own cost. Each test would then have to be approved by the state, or the district risks losing state and local funding. At some point in the year, students would have to take the tests, which means that teachers would have to spend time preparing the students for it, taking time away from learning critical and creative thinking. When the results come in, teachers would be evaluated based on the information therein, putting such high stakes on this testing that teachers would have no other real choice but to focus on the test topics, effectively “teaching to the test.” Students need more critical and creative thinking skills, not more test-taking skills, which are not particularly applicable in the workforce.
Then, according to bullet point #2 (require teachers to be dismissed, retained, demoted, promoted and paid primarily using quantifiable student performance data as part of the evaluation system), all that information gathered by the tests that took money and time out of the classroom where both are sorely needed will be put to use in determining whether a teacher should be offered a contract for the following year. All job decisions for teachers would be based on these tests, taken by their students. Let’s consider for a moment the implications of this. If a student does not like a teacher, they could easily sabotage their own results. If a student has something on their mind preventing them from focusing on the test that day, their results will be skewed. If a student missed breakfast, they might not focus on the test that day, and their results will be off. If a student didn’t pay attention in class, didn’t take notes, didn’t do their homework, and didn’t bother attempting to learn the material for whatever reason (oh yes, this happens!), they will not do well on the test. Notice how much of the power to manipulate the test results lies in the hands of the students. How is it fair to base employment decisions for teachers on a test that is largely out of their control? This is like basing employment decisions for doctors based upon the health of their patients. Even if it is based on progress as Teach Great claims, so incredibly many factors are out of the realm of control of the teacher that it seems absurd to use test results to decide whether a teacher should keep his job.
In my district, it is not my decision what classes I’ll teach in a given year; that is decided by administration and the guidance counselors, although I do have a little bit of a say by requesting what I’d like to teach. However, the last three years, I’ve taught from 2 – 4 classes of remedial math, with mostly lower-motivated or struggling students. I’m not the only teacher facing such a load; think of the special education teachers, the teachers of English as a Foreign Language, the teachers responsible for high-mobility students who sometimes move in and out of the district several times in a given year, or the teachers who end up with classes that are over-enrolled or have several students with behavioral issues. These students don’t test well, and I’ve discovered most of them really don’t care that they don’t test well. No, basing employment decisions on results of a test is not fair and it is not right. As a parent, I completely understand the desire to give my child the very best education possible, with the best, most caring and competent teachers, at the best schools. But I also understand that what happens at home in the morning can shape his whole day, that he needs discipline, exercise, and enough sleep. I understand that when things go wrong at school, he needs to take responsibility for his own actions and decisions, and the vast majority of the time, the teacher is not to blame for it. Unfortunately, not all parents have this understanding. I have been blamed for a student’s poor grades on numerous occasions, with parents shouting in my face that I don’t care about my students and I don’t care if they learn anything. I’ve also received notes of glowing praise from students and parents, stating that I am their favorite teacher because I always take the time to explain a concept and try my hardest to ensure understanding, even if it’s the fiftieth time I’ve done so. I’ve had classes full of attentive, conscientious students with an incredible work ethic, and I’ve had classes nearly completely full of students who have completely given up on ever understanding anything mathematical in this world. In one article I read, a teacher showed two sets of test results, one extremely good and one extremely poor, and asked people what they thought happened. Most said the good results came from a class with a good teacher and the poor results came from a class with a poor teacher. As it turns out, both classes were taught by the same teacher, in the same way, in the same year. Whose results should her future employment and salary be based upon?
Currently, my principals visit my classroom several times a year, checking that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. One of them is even a former math teacher who knows the standards I’m supposed to be teaching. State funding for districts is based in part on test performance, and accreditation is, as well. If very many students don’t do well, the district needs to come up with an improvement plan, and teachers with overall low-performing students are strongly scrutinized in this process. There already is accountability in schools. The tenured teachers get visits, too, and their evaluations are made part of their records. In my post regarding tenure, I’ll address some more nuances of this issue.
The fourth bullet point above states that the amendment will “prohibit teachers from organizing or collectively bargaining regarding the design and implementation of the teacher evaluation system.” Oh, how every bit of my management training obtained through my degree in engineering management and my masters in business administration wants to scream out the evils of unions. They are a major headache for management. Being a member of the Missouri State Teachers’ Association has given me an entirely different point of view, at least regarding teachers’ unions. They are our voice in legislative proceedings. They take the time to analyze different legislation that comes before our representatives and give us helpful information regarding things we might vote on or write the representatives about. They come to our defense when wrongfully terminated from our positions and in general times of trouble. They answer questions about what school districts are allowed to do and what they might do in different situations, such as making up snow days. They would still be allowed to do all of these things, but they would no longer be able to help us regarding the teacher evaluation process mandated by the amendment.
By these three parts of the amendment, teachers would be forced to teach to the test in hopes of retaining their jobs. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach to educating students that disregards their individuality and treats them like numbers, assuming that all students will learn at the same rate and at the same time. It assumes teachers are the sole influence on student performance. It forces districts to abandon recently-adopted and trained-for evaluation systems and conform to the new one, which costs the districts money. It forces districts to develop expensive standardized testing for areas where none exists, also costing the districts money. (The money for this will have to come directly from the taxpayers.) It takes school board control over employment decisions for teachers away and basically gives it to state politicians. It forces more tests upon students, and if you’ve ever taught before or had a student in your home, you know what a bad idea this is.
I believe that education in Missouri needs help, absolutely. This initiative, however, is decidedly not the answer. Teach Great claims it will give good teachers the support they need; I believe the opposite is true. I foresee a mass exodus of great teachers from the lower-achieving classes where they’re needed, from the school with high poverty rates, maybe even away from education altogether. Please research this issue as thoroughly as you can, and then GO VOTE on November 4. I hope you’ll stand with your community’s educators and vote no.