Education reformers are making teaching less attractive

Dana Goldstein has a worthwhile article on Slate today about the widespread breakout of cheating in schools that have adopted high-stakes testing models. These evaluation models — which are championed by the newest crop of education reformers — are plagued by a long list of conceptual and empirical problems, some of which I have detailed in the past. One additional problem that I think deserves to be raised is the possible impact these testing-heavy approaches — and the rest of the reform agenda — have on the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

As a background, it is important to note that the education reform movement has almost exclusively implicated bad teachers and schools as the cause of the country’s educational problems. Gone in this new movement are the more typical considerations of the impacts that poverty and inequality have on student performance. In its place is the very American idea that a child’s background has nothing to do with their level of achievement, and that therefore there must be something fundamentally lacking in the teachers and schools that serve students who perform poorly.

If you thought this was true, then the most logical thing to do would be to make improvements to schools and find ways to attract quality teachers. Even if you did not think it was true, attracting good teachers is still a worthwhile goal if only for the marginal impacts they are bound to have on at least some of the students. Given that the new reform movement is premised on the idea that we need better teachers, you would think that reformers would be doing all that they could to make the profession more attractive. However, what they are actually doing is the exact opposite.

Take high-stakes testing for example. I think it is safe to say that most individuals considering a teaching career are going to be turned off by a profession that forces them to narrowly teach to a limited test that then takes up their instruction time to administer. More than that, the high-stakes testing strategy is usually coupled with some sort of merit-based pay that is connected to student test scores. In this system, every few years a teacher might receive anything from a $25,000 bonus to a pink slip depending on the performance of their students which is at least partially if not primarily outside of their control. I can not speak for anyone else, but income and job instability is not what I usually look for when considering careers.

In addition to high-stakes testing, the movement also has a strange obsession with demonizing unions. If you were to listen to Michelle Rhee or watch the documentary Waiting for Superman, you would think that teacher unions were plaguing school systems and must be destroyed. In fact, one of the arguments often mentioned in favor of charter schools is that they are unencumbered by those awful union contracts. Like high-stakes testing, I am not exactly sure how attacking the collective bargaining agents of teachers is supposed to make the profession attractive to prospective teachers. Given the willingness of states to cut teacher salaries any time they are having a crunch, the last thing I would want to do is enter into a profession in which I had no protection against arbitrary policy whims.

Finally, the whole teacher-blaming focus of the reform movement is toxic. Teach for America, the darling program of the movement, is a complete slap in the fact to the teaching profession in that it suggests that green college students could do better than experienced instructors. Additionally, the almost exclusive focus on teachers as being to blame or praise for a students achievement level sets the profession up to be one of perpetual abuse. What do you expect to happen when inevitably a student performs poorly and the reformers are claiming that it is exclusively or primarily the teacher’s fault? Verbal abuse from parents and principles, that’s what.

Given the necessity of attracting high quality job candidates within the framework of teacher-focused reform, it is totally baffling that the reformers endorse so many remedies that are hostile to those in the profession. If attracting high quality teachers is already difficult, making the profession more rigid, more unstable, and more abusive is going to make it nearly impossible. How the reformers expect to fix the problem of bad teachers by making the whole profession less attractive is beyond me.