Here’s a new post from an anonymous Maryland teacher explaining why she is quitting and what is wrong with our education system. It was reprinted in the Washington Post, as part of Valerie Strauss’ inquiry into “what makes teaching the hardest job?” It’s a well written story, strikes a number of big, important chords, and the concluding thought is dynamite:
Clifford Stroll has already addressed our country’s educational misgivings in a single sentence: “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, and understanding is not wisdom.” It is time that we fall on our sword. In our rabid pursuit of data and blame, we have sacrificed wisdom and abandoned its fruits. We cannot broaden our students’ horizons by placing them and their teachers into narrow boxes, unless we then plan to bury them.
But I have to take issue with this teacher’s two main gripes. She is fed up with
- Being forced to pass students or give A’s regardless of a lack of learning or effort.
- “The constant demand to prove our worth to the domination of oppressive teacher evaluation methods”
To the first point, she tells of frustrating pressures to inflate grades, and of how she eventually gave in to the pressures:
After years of being harangued, I gave Bs to D-quality work, but that is never good enough. All I can do is field the various phone calls, meetings, and e-mails, to let myself be abused, slandered, spit at because that is my career, taking the fall for our country’s mistakes and skewed priorities. So if you want your child to get an education, then I’m afraid that as a teacher, I can’t help you, but feel free to stop by if you want a sticker and a C.
To the second point, she seems to yearn for the days when teachers were left alone to make their own decisions:
Decisions about classrooms should be made in classrooms. Teachers are the most qualified individuals to determine what is needed for their own students. Each classroom is different. It has a different chemistry, different dynamic, different demographic, and the teacher is the one who keeps the balance. He or she knows each student, knows what they need, and they should be the ones making the decisions about how to best reach them. Sure, using different resources and strategies among schools may make data sharing more difficult, but haven’t we gone far enough with data? Each child is not a number or a data point. They can only be compared to the developmental capabilities set forth by medicine, not education, and to their own previous progress.
Education cannot be objectively measured. It never could, and our problems began when we came to that realization and instead of embracing it, decided to force it into a quantifiable box that is much too small and too much the wrong shape.
Her complaints bring to mind a number of responses, but I’ll save the most important for last.
First, she admits to repeatedly giving in to the pressure, and handing out grades that were un-earned, so perhaps it’s for the best that she has left teaching. I don’t mean to cast stones at her; she has chosen to quit and to blow the whistle on a system she found herself unable to buck. Yet, to me, a more fitting martyr for the ills of our education system is this Colorado principal, who was fired for refusing to give in to a school policy of stamping the hands of students who had no money to pay for their school lunch. If you are given orders that are truly wrong, quitting is a reasonable, perhaps even an admirable, response. Not following those orders is a better one.
Second, she craves a world of strict standards for measuring student performance, but appears opposed to the idea of measuring teacher performance. A small corner she’s painted herself into, but also one that strikes me as just wrong. Here’s a recent post from a Kentucky principal that talks about why those about-to-be-bygone days when teachers were all rated “satisfactory” were not quite so ideal:
“Good job!” “Nice lesson!” “Students look like they are having fun!” …we have all been evaluated multiple times in our careers as educators and, sadly, the majority of the feedback we have received has been similar to these examples. As teachers, we know the importance of feedback in the success of our students; however, we have not been given much of that feedback to improve our success as professionals.
In my nine years of teaching, I was much more frustrated by the lack of any meaningful feedback than I was oppressed by the domination of teacher evaluation. Of course, that was only my personal experience.
And that brings me to my final, most important point. Regardless of whether our personal experiences line up closer to the anonymous Maryland teacher or to the Kentucky principal, they are only our own unique experiences. We cannot, or at least we should not, extrapolate from our own experiences to make sweeping generalizations about the problems that afflict the entire education system. If we want to know if grade inflation is a widespread problem (and this study suggests that it is), we have to examine a reasonable amount of data.
This Maryland teacher dismisses the idea of learning from data, and offers in its place her own personal narrative. I love a good story more than almost anything else, but, even without resorting to any statistical methodology, can we all agree that making generalizations requires a few more cases? Data analysis aggregates dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of stories together in order to determine a general trend. Mistakes in data analysis are made all the time. But the idea that we can trust one story, but cannot trust data, is one that will leave our education policy decisions forever stuck in the days of P.T. Barnum and snake oil salesmen, convinced by the best story rather than the best evidence.