Today, a news headline in my inbox reads: Rhode Island District Superintendent To Fire Entire Staff At Underperformed High School. According to the article, this high school is the lowest performing in the State, and their test results have continued to drop too many years in a row. The teachers have refused to adopt the changes mandated by government program improvement, and so the Superintendent must choose the only other option given by No Child Left Behind legislation, and fire them all.
Next I read an article by Melinda French Gates, published in the Washington Post. Ms. Gates seems to believe that even schools that carry the weight of the At Risk student population can produce consistently high test results, as well as high school graduates who plan to attend college. What students need, she writes, are good teachers. The teachers hold the key to student success -- and if the teachers are good enough, then the students will succeed across all social and economic barriers.
Now, I am not one to romanticize the public school teacher. I went to public school, and I remember with bitter clarity what it was like for me there. Socially dysfunctional and boring. So boring. Boring beyond boring. I have never been so bored in my life, boring. I stopped counting the holes in asbestos ceiling panels the last day I spent in high school, boring. So don't expect me to carry on about the invaluable nature of the holy K-12 "teacher". On the other hand, for many of my students, a good teacher is the best chance they have -- because when they aren't at school, no one else is in their life is paying them any positive attention.
Ms. Gates readily admits that assessing teacher performance is complex, and that assessing teacher performance based one standardized test results alone, is not enough. After all, by the time students reach my classroom, they have already been taught for the previous 11-13 years, by other teachers. Yet suddenly I am responsible for their achievements, as well as their failings. And what if my students do not do well on the Standardized Test? What if they still stink at writing when they leave my room -- sorry, but if the multitude of teachers who came before me couldn't do it, what makes you think it can be done?
On the other hand, what if they learning something in my class that cannot be measured via multiple choice? What if they read and enjoyed their first story? What if they learned to be more tolerant? What if they, for the fist time ever, like English -- when previously it was a subject they found most loathsome? How do you measure that?
So maybe those teachers in Rhode Island really are terrible at their jobs. Maybe they are boring, so boring that the smartest kids refuse to go to school because they've already counted all the holes in the ceiling and there are none left to count. Maybe they are mean teachers, who unjustly punish their students, refuse them creative expression, and belittle them in front of their peers (we've all had those). On the other hand, what if the students are learning something? Something we haven't yet figured out how to measure?
I don't know the school, I don't know the community, and I don't know the teachers -- but I imagine, even if I did, this would not be an easy question to answer.