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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How blaming the teacher becomes 'common sense'

Woman with apple on head
Like all bad education ideas, it was just a matter of time before the L.A. Times' “grading the teacher” virus crossed the border. A month after the story broke stateside, the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti rolled out the welcome mat for the concept and its Canadian shill, the Fraser Institute's Peter Cowley.

Tremonti hosted both Cowley and Mary-Lou Donnelly, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, on The Current, the CBC's national morning radio show, last Wednesday. You can listen to the exchange here. (Skip the intro and scrub forward to the 2:10 minute mark.)

The front and back ends of the segment feature clips from parents and kids who - except for two I counted - were all in favour of grading the teacher. The common sense argument often expressed was "students get graded, so why shouldn't teachers?"

Donnelly admirably defended both teachers and the current teacher evaluation system, but Cowley got the more sympathetic hearing from the CBC host. The interview was the first spade full of spin in setting the foundation for the idea that this concept's time has come.

Blaming the teacher
It's the most ugly incarnation of the "blame the teacher" argument you can imagine, couched in pseudo-economic terms as "value-added." The idea being that teachers who deliver "more than expected" are adding value to students' educations, and that teachers should be held publicly accountable for their performance.

This nasty idea virus was born on August 14, when the Los Angeles Times published the first in a series of articles which highlighted 6,000 individual teachers’ effectiveness in America’s second-largest school district. You read that right – individual teachers’ effectiveness.

Based on what? Their students ranking on standardized tests, naturally. Here’s the Times' link. Brace yourself for the cutline below the photo.

So we’re not talking about school rankings, as distasteful as they are, anymore, are we? This is about comparisons, teacher to teacher, of how their students perform on standardized tests. It’s about as pointed as it gets and, until mid-August, had never been done anywhere before.

Sounding in every ear
Like other bad education ideas hatched down south, this one is destined to take its place in everyday conversations at the Tim Horton's and around kitchen tables across Canada. There is no doubt the Fraser Institute and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy will be beating this drum until it has sounded in every ear.

There will little talk of testing the public school system, not simply measuring student - and now teacher - performance. No nod to the value of developing comprehensive indicators to see how systems are performing. No awareness that funding is critical. No recognition that there are so many societal and systemic factors beyond the control of teachers that influence student achievement.

Grading, read 'blaming', the teacher will become common sense.

At one point in the CBC interview, Tremonti asked Cowley what the problem was when Canadian students consistently rank near the top in reading, maths and science in international tests. Cowley predictably asked her to get back to talking about the quality of teachers.

When is it good enough?
Even in Alberta, whose students lead the rest of the country on international tests, the Fraser Institute is actively trying to undermine confidence in public schools. Teachers don't put a whole lot of stock in international tests. But even so, are the results ever good enough?

Not likely, because better public schools are not the goal.

Make no mistake about the common sense agendas these right-wing think tanks push. Many of these concepts aren't homegrown. All of them are designed to crack the market for experiments with privatization of public schools.

We've watched these attempts collapse in other jurisdictions. Corporate control of public schools will never be common sense. And for all their concern for student learning and teacher effectiveness, it is abundantly clear these people are friends of neither.

1 comment:

  1. Well, Ray, I wish this post was not necessary, but it is wishful thinking that the nonsense that occurs south of the border will stay there. The game of attacking public education and teachers seems destined to be played out time and again as narrow minded, self-serving people spout their ignorant views. Unfortunately all too many want to play the blame game instead of taking a look at all parts of the picture and working towards informed and truly innovative change. No one wold deny that there is always room for improvement, but attacking hard working, dedicated teachers is not the answer. Educators and supporters of good public education must be vigilant and fight these short sighted ultra-conservative views (I would say hacks, but that might be negative?). Thanks for bringing this to our attention and let's keep up the good, honourable fight!