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It’s only fair that personal responsibility for a particular outcome, and the consequent credit or blame, should be proportionate to one’s influence over that outcome:

The Great Chicago Fire: Bossie – 5%; The Lantern – 10%; Mrs. O’Leary – 35%; Chicago Zoning/Building Codes – 50%

The Kardashian Phenomenon: Kardashian family – 20%; American stupidity – 80%

imagesIf you can understand what you’ve read so far, can explain percentages, can add the above figures and get 100% for each, and can deduce where the Chicago Fire occurred, some of the credit probably goes to your teachers. On the other hand, if Kardashian rings a bell, you have only yourself to blame.

By this time in your life, you couldn’t assign to your teachers a percentage figure for their contribution to your knowledge. Time has passed, but, more fundamental, there were too many factors that influenced what you learned or didn’t learn to isolate just one.

This simple truth seems to have eluded an increasingly vocal and influential bloc of reformers who see our public schools as failures and claim to have a clever rescue plan.

These reformers attribute the problems to a system, burdened by teacher seniority and tenure, and the stranglehold of teachers unions, that rewards complacent, mediocre teachers and discourages the bright and innovative. The reformers’ solution appears to rely on a vision of American free enterprise, where competition drives innovation, and the market rewards quality and efficiency as it punishes the merely acceptable.

Among their business-inspired reform proposals, which include vouchers and charter schools (another topic, another time), is bonus pay for meritorious performance and the Help Wanted pages for the laggards.

But it’s a flawed notion in at least two respects: (1) It misunderstands the fundamental nature of education; and (2) It cannot, with sufficient accuracy, isolate those elements of learning for which a teacher is responsible.

(1) Teaching youngsters is essentially a cooperative, not a competitive, enterprise. Teachers rely on each other to help set the overall tone of their school and to influence the mentality that each student carries from class to class, from day to day. A school isn’t a love-in. It is a tough environment. But introducing a competition with a few winners and plenty of losers can only hurt morale and affect the quality of education, especially if the competition is not fair.

(2) And it isn’t! The only non-biased measure of teacher effectiveness would be a quantitatively-scored test of each student’s performance that is compared with his/her previous test score in that same subject. Then, at least, you could begin to measure a teacher’s Value Added for each student. But testing can’t account for factors that intervene, even between two sequential tests, over which the teacher has no control — family situation, peer influence, physical health among many others.

This doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. There is a model that could work. The drawback is, it’s old-school: a framework of professional norms that identifies proven best practices, along with a training, interning, mentoring, and evaluating process (by peers and supervisors). In roughly similar form, it seems to work for other service professions like medicine and the law (and could include cautionary tales of worst practices, in order to mollify those who see education reform as essentially a de-worming process).

If this is not acceptable, there are a couple alternative environments where the reformers could test their learning-output measurement of teacher quality, better controlling extraneous variables like family influence, giving a more precise account of each teacher’s Value Added, and rewarding (or punishing) accordingly. One is called Boarding School. The other is called Reform School.Unknown-13

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