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February 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 5

Getting Beyond the Blame Game

If we truly want to improve our schools, let's stop blaming the teachers.

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Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has gone down in recent years (Gordon, 2011; Kilbride, 2012; Sobota & Coulter, 2013)—and it's hardly surprising. Consider the devastating layoffs amidst the Great Recession, the deteriorating working conditions as teacher salaries have stagnated and class sizes have grown, a regimen of reforms that threatens educators with sanctions under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, pressures to impose poorly conceived pay-for-performance measures on teachers, and public shaming of teachers by public officials and newspapers on both the East and West coasts. By September 2013, enrollment in California teacher preparation programs had dropped 24 percent from the previous year'and 66 percent below enrollments a decade earlier (Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 2013; Freedberg, 2013).
In a devastating aside on the California report, a commentator wrote, "In a normative economic sense, becoming a California public school teacher is beneath the dignity of anyone who has an alternative" (Freedberg, 2013).
Not surprisingly, surveys indicate that teacher satisfaction has declined dramatically in the last five years, on some measures to the lowest level in the last 25 years (Harris Interactive, 2013). A decade of belt-tightening and unprecedented levels of teacher and union bashing from pundits, philanthropists, and all sides of the political spectrum have finally come home to roost.

A Profession Under Assault

y first hint that things were going south with the reform movement came from a retiring superintendent. She noted that she had entered teaching shortly after A Nation at Risk appeared in 1983 and lamented, "My profession has been under assault throughout my career." As the reductive approach to teaching and learning embedded in the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration's Race to the Top came to the fore and the slash-and-burn tactics of celebrity school leaders like Michelle Rhee won plaudits from national media, it became clear that the self-confidence of the best of the profession was shaken while morale throughout the teaching ranks verged on shattered.
Anecdotes may not be data, but as a way of knowing, they are often hard to beat. And old-school insights from high school English classes'such as the "telling detail" 'still have something to teach us. Many of those details document the appalling decline in civility that has greeted U.S. teachers as the quality of the debate about schooling has fallen to new lows.
In 2012, one confident young woman who held National Board certification'which documented her command of both challenging content and the knowledge and skills required to create appropriate learning experiences'told me of mornings sitting in tears in the school parking lot as the stress within the building turned the profession she loved into a frustrating obstacle course. She has since left K–12 education.
An assistant principal in the South, a talented young black man, affirmed that many mornings he came across teachers outside the school who were so distressed that he found substitutes for their morning classes while he helped them pull themselves together. His "telling moment" arrived when his wife declared that she was tired of sending his suits to the dry cleaners to rid them of the smell of the tear gas employed liberally at the school when the police needed to break up particularly ugly gang fights. "Assessment and the Common Core don't address these gang issues," he commented soberly. Subsequently, he left that school to become an administrator elsewhere.
Public "telling details" also document the derision that educators, teachers, and the unions that represent them routinely receive from many of today's reformers:
  • Unprompted, Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of schools in Washington, D.C., invited PBS's John Merrow, producer of Learning Matters, to film her as she fired a principal (Winerip, 2011).
  • The Los Angeles Times made available the results of teacher evaluations for every teacher, by name, throughout the city (Song, 2010). In the aftermath, one shamed teacher, reported by his colleagues to be a dedicated and award-winning performer, committed suicide (Hoag, 2010).
  • The New York Post followed suit in New York (Gonen, 2012). In the process, the Post labeled as "New York's worst teacher" an educator who was, according to colleagues and administrators, one of the finest in the city, a teacher dedicated to working with students with the greatest challenges (Strauss, 2013).
  • The public narrative about reassignment centers in New York City public schools blamed teachers and unions for shortcomings in this disciplinary process. Reports indicated that in these reassignment centers, or "rubber rooms," up to 600 teachers were being paid for months or years at a time while awaiting arbitration on charges of misconduct (Brill, 2009). The narrative ignored the small number of arbitrators available to work on these complex issues and the fact that many arbitrators quit because the state's department of education had not paid them for years (Fleisher, 2012).
  • In February 2010 at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, negotiations between district administrators and the union over additional pay for additional time broke down amid a frantic rush to get School Improvement Grant applications under Race to the Top out the door. As a result, the entire teaching staff was fired (Greenhouse & Dillon, 2010). The persistently low performance of Central Falls students, in the poorest district in the state and one with a large immigrant population, was apparently the fault of no one but school staff.

Public Shaming

In the midst of these telling details, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has played a troubling role. Early in 2010, he declared, "I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina" (Anderson, 2010). Although within 48 hours he apologized for this unconscionable remark (Maxwell, 2010), the cat was out of the bag. In an unforced error, he had expressed in public a view that reformers have not hesitated to express to me in private.
Within a month, the secretary took sides in the Rhode Island controversy. He "applauded" the school firings, arguing, "When schools continue to struggle, we have a collective obligation to take action" (Montopoli, 2010). President Barack Obama added fuel to the fire: "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability" (Greenhouse & Dillon, 2010). Within weeks, the union and the administration in Central Falls worked out a bargained solution to the impasse, but the whole incident played out in educators' minds as a case of the most senior education and political leaders in the United States using teachers as scapegoats for education failures that were actually grounded in larger social shortcomings.
Still later, Secretary Duncan found himself again on the defensive after initially endorsing the release of teacher data by the Los Angeles Times. "What is there to hide?" he asked in an interview the day after the Times released the data (Felch & Song, 2010). By 2012, however, in the middle of an election campaign, his views had evolved. Newspapers should not publish teacher ratings, he told Education Week, because "we're at a time when morale is at a record low …. We need to be strengthening teachers, and elevating them, and supporting them" (Sawchuk, 2012). Left unspoken was any sense that the secretary of education or the president of the United States had contributed to what Duncan acknowledged to be "record low" levels of teacher morale.
Indeed, Duncan's change of heart on the publication of teacher ratings mirrored a condemnation of the practice issued by philanthropist Bill Gates, a fairly consistent critic of school performance. Writing in the New York Times, Gates argued that releasing teacher ratings to the public was "a big mistake" (Gates, 2012). In no other line of work, he said, is employee performance publicly reported. He noted that at Microsoft, "we … would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper."
While calling for more effective evaluation systems, Gates (2012) concluded, "The surest way to weaken [the effort to improve teaching through evaluation] is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming. Let's focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve."

From Anecdotes to Data

Recent surveys document that anecdotes about teacher stress and alienation increasingly describe the norm'and not the exception'in U.S. schools. According to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher(Harris Interactive, 2013),
  • Half of teachers (51 percent) report feeling under great stress several days a week, an increase of 15 percentage points over the proportion of teachers reporting that level in 1985.
  • Teacher satisfaction is on the decline. Five years ago, 62 percent of teachers reported themselves to be "very satisfied." Today, just 39 percent of teachers do so, the lowest level in 25 years.
  • Less-satisfied teachers are more likely than very satisfied teachers to be in schools where budgets declined in the last 12 months.
  • Less-satisfied teachers are more likely to be located in schools that experienced drops in professional development and in time for collaboration with other teachers.
  • Large majorities of less-satisfied teachers are also likely to agree that two significant issues are either "challenging" or "very challenging" for school leaders: maintaining an adequate supply of effective teachers (58 percent) and creating and maintaining an academically rigorous learning environment (66 percent).
  • In a significant finding, 97 percent of teachers give high ratings to other teachers in their schools.

Two Problematic Policies

Teachers might also be understandably upset that two kissing cousins in education policy'performance-based pay and value-added measurement'are high on reformers' agendas, although there's almost no research support for either practice and considerable opposition among the scientists, psychometricians, and statisticians who presumably would develop, implement, and monitor these proposals.
The measurement and analytical challenges involved with these proposals are formidable, according to analyses from the RAND Corporation (Marsh et al., 2011); Educational Testing Service (Braun, 2005); and the National Research Council. The latter lists a range of problems: measurement error; the difficulty of attributing student growth to individual teachers; the possibility that teachers might teach to the test; and the need for equal interval scales that permit consistent ranking of schools, teachers, and value-added progress (so that a 10-point improvement from 50 to 60 equals a 10-point improvement from 85 to 95, a much more difficult gain to achieve) (Braun, Chudowsky, & Koenig, 2010). There's also the difficulty associated with vertically linking tests from grade to grade to compare growth; the challenge of precision in the face of small sample sizes, leading to year-to-year fluctuations in estimates of teacher effects; and issues of data quality. According to the National Research Council, such problems bedevil the effort to measure value-added progress or to provide rewards for outstanding performance.
On cue, as if to provide a real-world example of the futility of trying to tie teacher pay to performance or effort, a study from Vanderbilt University indicated that even bonuses as high as $15,000 annually were ineffective in improving teacher performance (Springer et al., 2010). In passing, it should be noted that the very idea of performance-based pay is an insult to the profession, implying that financial carrots must be dangled in front of teachers to make sure they work hard enough.

A Weak Signal in a Lot of Noise

In the 2013 Angoff Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Educational Testing Service, Edward H. Haertel, Jacks Family Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford, turned a critical, scholarly eye on value-added measure ment (Haertel, 2013). His review of the literature concluded that teachers account for about 10 percent of the variance in test score gains in a single year, with out-of-school factors accounting for 60 percent. Citing a quip from Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond, "You can't fire your way to Finland!" Haertel pointed out that statistical models designed to estimate teachers' value-added scores have to "separate a weak signal [10 percent] from much noise and possible distortion" [the 90 percent made up of a range of both in-school and out-of-school factors] (p. 5).
In a carefully constructed argument, Haertel poured cold water on the much-vaunted claim that the best teachers can improve student performance by 50 percent over five years. Measure ment error makes it im possible to accurately identify the best and worst teachers, he noted. The effects of good (or bad) teaching fade out over five years. And, as a practical matter, it's impossible to assign the top-performing teachers to the lowest-performing students or replace the current teaching force with nothing but top performers. The concept is more satisfactory in theory than it could ever be in practice.
Moreover, Haertel argued, the technical dimensions of assessments mean that a value-added approach to teacher assessment translates into bias against those teachers who work with the lowest-performing or the highest-performing classes. Presumably, then, it works against the very teachers whom policymakers want in classrooms with low-performing students.
Although value-added measures (VAM) might in carefully controlled circumstances be valuable as private signals to teachers, Haertel roundly condemned the idea that they should be used to make personnel decisions about teachers:
My first conclusion should come as no surprise: Teacher VAM scores should emphatically not be included as a substantial factor with a fixed weight in consequential teacher personnel decisions. The information they provide is simply not good enough to use in that way. It is not just that the information is noisy. Much more serious is the fact that the scores may be systematically biased for some teachers and against others. … No statistical manipulation can assure fair comparisons of teachers working in very different schools, with very different students, under very different conditions. (pp. 23–24)
Yet, despite resting on a scientific foundation of sand, the concepts of performance-based pay and value-added assessment are central to the policy prescriptions of reformers like Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, and Jeb Bush; groups like Chiefs for Change, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and Rhee's StudentsFirst; and the foundations that support such groups, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Stuck in Theory X

In the 1960s, MIT's Douglas McGregor developed a typology for describing management's perceptions of employee motivation that has stood the test of time (McGregor, 1960). Theory X managers considered workers to be lazy and inclined to avoid work if they possibly could. Managing such shiftless employees required measurement, hierarchy, and control. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, considered workers to be self-motivated and inclined to seek out challenges and respond to them. Managing self-motivated employees required encouraging their creativity.
Although neither theory was entirely satisfactory, the dichotomy seemed to describe something very real in management–labor relations. William Ouchi (1981) later developed Theory Z as an appendage to McGregor's formulation. Building on W. Edwards Deming's famous 14 principles of productivity and highly successful Japanese manufacturing practices, Ouchi argued for developing employee loyalty to the enterprise by providing stable employment while encouraging high productivity through enhanced employee morale, creativity, and job satisfaction.
What's striking about the school reform discussion of the 21st century is how solidly it's grounded in the management outlook of Theory X, an outlook that was discredited and largely rejected in the corporate world nearly 50 years ago.

Looking Ahead

Belt tightening and teacher bashing have had debilitating consequences for both the attractiveness of the profession for high school graduates and the health and well-being of U.S. schools and prospects for U.S. competitive ness. It's high time pundits, philanthropists, and policymakers moved beyond the blame game and engaged in a more productive approach to improving our schools.
They might begin with a consensus-building exercise to examine the proposition that although there are clearly problems in many U.S. schools, the enterprise as a whole is not a failure. They might consider the possibility that adopting policies and rhetoric that threaten to drive some of the best and the brightest out of K–12 education is a prescription for education disaster. And they might want to pay more than lip service to the need to bring research to bear on policy by actually paying attention to what researchers have to say about their policies.
They could also consider how corporate management practices have become more enlightened over the years and incorporate those findings into education policy. Finally, they might bring teacher leaders, union officials, policymakers, and philanthropists together around an agenda aimed at identifying both the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. education with the goal of supporting the former and addressing the latter.
It's reported that the Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." For too long, education policy debates in the United States have been about job training, market forces, and filling buckets. It's about time the discussion reclaimed the true mission of education in a democracy: lighting fires of the mind that support and defend the values of a free society.

Anderson, N. (2010, January 30). Education secretary calls Katrina good for New Orleans schools. Washington Post.

Braun, H. I. (2005). Using student progress to evaluate teachers. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Braun, H., Chudowsky, N., & Koenig, J. (Eds.). (2010). Getting value out of value-added. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Brill, S. (2009, August 31). The rubber room. The New Yorker.

Commission on Teacher Credentialing. (2013, September). Annual report card on California teacher preparation programs for the academic year 2011–2012 as required by Title II of the Higher Education Act. Sacramento, CA: Author. Retrieved from www.ctc.ca.gov/commission/agendas/2013-09/2013-09-4G.pdf

Felch, J., & Song, J. (2010, August 16). U.S. schools chief endorses release of teacher data. Los Angeles Times.

Fleisher, B. (2012, June 6). City, UFT in talks to replace arbitrators. Wall Street Journal.

Freedberg, L. (2013, September 24). Enrollment in teacher preparation programs plummets. Edsource.

Gates, B. (2012, February, 22). Shame is not the solution. New York Times.

Gonen, Y. (2012, February 24). NYC makes internal ratings of 18,000 public school teachers available. New York Post.

Gordon, L. (2011, April 3). Today's teacher layoffs threaten tomorrow's college classrooms. Los Angeles Times.

Greenhouse, S., & Dillon, S. (2010, March 6). School's shake-up is embraced by the president. New York Times.

Haertel, E. H. (2013, March 22). Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores. William H. Angoff Memorial Lecture Series. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Harris Interactive. (2013, February). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Challenges for school leadership. New York: MetLife.

Hoag, C. (2010, September, 28). Rigoberto Ruelas' suicide raises questions about LA Times teacher rankings. Huffington Post.

Kilbride, K. (2012, March 25). Where are the teachers?South Bend Tribune.

Marsh, J. A. (2011). What New York City's experiment with schoolwide performance bonuses tells us about pay for performance. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Maxwell, L. (2010, February 2). Duncan apologizes for Katrina remarks [blog post]. Politics K–12 at Education Week.

McGregor, F. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw Hill.

Montopoli, B. (2010, February 24). Obama official applauds Rhode Island teacher firings. CBSNews.com.

Ouchi, W. (1981). Theory Z. New York: Avon Books.

Sawchuk, S. (2012, March 23). Arne Duncan: Newspapers shouldn't publish teacher ratings [blog post]. Education Week Teacher Beat.

Sobota, L., & Coulter, P. (2013, April 7). ISU sees drop in incoming students seeking teaching degree. Pantagraph.

Song, J. (2010, August 30). Teachers blast L.A. Times for releasing effectiveness rankings. Los Angeles Times.

Springer, M. G., Hamilton, L., McCaffrey, D. F., Ballou, D., Le, V., Pepper, M., et al. (2010). Teacher pay for performance: Experimental evidence from the project on incentives in teaching. Nashville, TN: Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

Strauss, V. (2013, September 8). How one great teacher was wronged by a flawed evaluation system [blog post]. The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post.

Winerip, M. (2011, August, 21). Eager for spotlight, but not if it is on a testing scandal. New York Times.

James Harvey has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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