Dynamist Blog

Classroom Judgments

In an op-ed in USA Today, Bruce Kluger uses a PBS documentary about an inspiring teacher to lament current education policies:

More than just a fly-on-the-classroom-wall peek at an exceptional educator, however, Greatness serves as a cautionary tale about our nation's current education system, and the way in which policymakers' ongoing efforts to tinker with the process may be, at best, heavy-handed or, at worst, wrongheaded.

For instance, in the past year, the debate over social promotion reached high decibels in school districts across the nation, most notably in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted rigid policies to hold back third-graders who aren't keeping up with their classmates. But it wasn't until I watched Greatness that I truly understood how counterproductive such a policy can be. After all, classrooms are simply microcosms of families, and no family I know of jettisons its lesser members.

"I see (the classroom) as a wagon," Cullum explains early on in the film. "Your thoroughbreds of the class are going to pull the wagon--they're the leaders. But everyone is on that wagon, and everyone reaches the goal. No one is left out."

Granted, Cullum called roll in his classroom more than a generation before slashed budgets, plummeting scores and hallway metal detectors would become the stuff of modern education. But building a child's mind is inarguably as daunting a task as building a new system, and in this regard, Cullum made the grade.

The film also offers a decent argument about the potential myopia of modern-day standardized testing, which customarily cleaves to math and grammar as the true litmus of our kids' smarts. Though Cullum certainly didn't abandon these areas of study, he devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to the arts--and it paid off.

Leaving aside the questions of whether a classroom is in fact like a family and whether it's good policy to expect good students to "pull the wagon" for others, focusing on a single outstanding teacher misses the real dynamic of what's going on with education policy. It's a struggle created by the demand for objective, articulable standards.

If you want teachers to be judged on subjective qualities like their ability to inspire students, you have to let schools hire, fire, promote, and demote their teachers accordingly. That means paying not by objective criteria like degrees and seniority but by a boss's professional evaluation. It means allowing into the classroom great teachers who have subject knowledge but not a lot of idiotic education courses on their transcripts.

Of course, teachers as a group don't want to give their bosses the power to evaluate them. Certainly, the teachers' unions don't want that. So to create any connection between classroom performance and professional evaluations, we're stuck with objective criteria, notably test scores. The alternative, beloved by teachers' advocates, is to have objective measures of teacher "quality," including seniority and acadmic credentials, and no measures of teaching quality. Standardized tests and prescribed curricula are far from perfect, but they're better than no accountability at all.

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