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In an effort to improve education, many reformers suggest that we use a business approach to evaluate teachers. To do this they suggest that teachers must be rated based on what they “do” for the children that they teach. For many, this means judging the quality of a teacher based on the improvements students make on standardized tests in a given school year. Essentially this requires us to look at children as a definable product. But children are not widgets.
Let me explain what a business defines as a widget. A widget is the placeholder name for a manufactured device. Basically it is the generic name for any item a business can sell. For my purposes in this article I will use a gear as my example. We want our gears to be of high enough quality so that they do not fail in whatever way our consumers wish to use them and to cost a modest enough amount to manufacture so that we make a profit. In order to succeed we must be able to evaluate the machinery used for production, the quality of the raw materials used in the manufacture, and possibly the design of the gear in the event that a batch of our gears does not pass quality testing. These parts of production would need to be evaluated in order to find what the cause of quality failure was. If the design and machinery had worked to produce quality gears in the past, we would then look at what might have changed with the raw materials used. If the problem was the quality of the raw materials we would need to find a better supplier or higher quality materials in general. The problem would then be solved. But children are not widgets.
If we attempt to analyze what students learn using a business model, we must look at multiple factors. The machinery in the business model would translate in the education system to include the school boards, the funding sources (usually state legislatures), and the school administrations as these all make the decisions that affect what happens in a classroom. The raw materials involved in education are far greater than you might expect. They of course include the children and the teacher. But we must also include parents and the community. In addition, we must look at what basic needs each child receives every day including adequate food, clothing, medical care, and housing. Without all of these functioning at stable levels the children and teacher alone cannot be successful. The design element would include school culture, programs used, availability of supplies and equipment, as well as support staff. With this many variables it is a much more difficult task to find what is causing a poor educational outcome. So in order to simplify the process many reformers choose the simplistic idea of using standardized test scores to rate teachers. That concept allows society to have someone to blame.
From my perspective the problem with this simplistic idea is that children are not widgets. Different schools as well as different districts do not have the same machinery. More importantly, not all children in the same classroom are provided with the same raw materials. For example, some are homeless, others are not. There is also the issue of varying school design. Some districts allow teacher innovation, others do not. With all of the variables, should we really be measuring the success of a teacher based on standardized tests when most of the variables involved in a child’s education are currently completely out of the teacher’s control?