Sunday, February 26, 2012

Who is Accountable for Teaching Contexts?

For the past few years, teacher accountability has been all the rage in education reform circles. This past week, New York State introduced a teacher evaluation system which relies heavily on student test scores and has sparked controversy nationwide. Grading teacher effectiveness is the name of the game.

With all this focus on individual teacher performance, I feel like we have missed the major factor in great education, the teaching environment, or context. While complex algorithms supposedly account for differences in student demographics for VAM scores, I am not convinced that these made-up numbers account for the context teachers are placed in and often have very little control over.

For example, there are many urban schools that are so ridiculously under resourced, that there are few books, no curriculum, and few support services. The school I taught in got rid of all but one special education aide, and she was most likely to be found in the school office doing paperwork and making copies for our principal rather that supporting our students with special needs. But no one was held accountable for that injustice. And the students suffered.

Who is held accountable for the context teachers are placed in? In Chicago, the school Board recently voted to close or turnaround 17 more schools next year due to “academic failure”. But teachers from the affected schools reported contexts like “57 kindergartners in one class” and teachers having to buy all their own copy paper.

The people supporting school closures and turnarounds act as if all teachers were being given the same level playing field to work from, and were simply not good enough thus justifying mass firings. We all know this is simply not the case.

Some principals are supportive and helpful, while others are vindictive and cruel. Who is accountable for this? Some schools put special education as a priority while others warehouse students with special needs in the “resource rooms”. Who is accountable? Some schools are given funding for arts, music, and gym class every day, while others can only afford one part-time position music OR art. Who is accountable? Some schools invest in small class sizes while others have huge split classes squeezing 40+ students into one room. Who is accountable? Some schools have a full-time social worker and nurse, while many only have a social worker and nurse one day a week at best. Who is accountable? Some schools rely on far too many untrained and uncertified teachers meaning a cohort of children will not be prepared well. Who is accountable? Many schools have excessive teacher turnover. Who is held accountable for the terrible teaching conditions which drive teachers away?

I believe that a teacher is only as successful as the context they are given to teach in. Someone may be a “great” teacher in one context, but an “ineffective” teacher in another. So who grades the environments? In fact, school environments and resources as well as individual school per-pupil spending would be easier to quantify into comparable numbers than a teacher’s subjective effectiveness. So let’s start measuring!

If we truly started grading school environments, the conversation would necessarily have to shift to school funding issues and resource distribution. These inequalities are much more important to focus on than individual teacher effectiveness or union protections like tenure. All the data points to income inequality and subsequent school funding inequality being the main driver behind struggling schools. NOT bad teachers.

So let’s hold the people who distribute the resources accountable! Let’s grade our politicians and chief financial officers! “Ineffective” does not even begin to describe the rating they should get....


  1. Thanks for providing another way to look at school performance; this aspect has been lacking in discussions heretofore.

  2. Brilliant point, and might I just add it would be just as illustrative to look at the context from which the promoters of these insane standards are coming from (needless to say not the classrooms!!).