Holding Teachers Accountable

I’m married into a teaching family. My wife took up teaching as a second career, and has spent the last decade teaching in various New York City and Westchester County middle and high schools of widely different conditions of wealth, quality and ambition. Two of her uncles were teachers, two of her cousins are school superintendents, and and at least three other cousins are or were teachers. When Chris Christie and his ilk start blaming teachers for the inadequacies of the educational system and start looking for ways to cut their pay, you can guess our response.

But you might be surprised. My wife comes home with stories of her colleagues’ inadequacies. She works with one man, comfortably tenured, who weekly offers some statement of scientific principle that shows that he really doesn’t know how the world works. She works with another, fresh from the Teach for America program, who has such a wilting classroom presence that he cannot hold his students’ attention. The older man probably get paid $70,000 a year or so, and could probably be whipped into shape by a motivated administration. The younger man should probably earns $30,000 or less, and would have been sent packing long ago if he didn’t carry such a light price tag. My wife would show no regret if under some grading system these two were sent packing.

But there are two problems. First, any system based on student performance is apt to also claim good teachers, because, let’s face it, in a lot of schools, the kids are not destined for success. They are not prepared, they don’t do homework, they do not have proper parental support. Second, school administrations are highly political bodies, and are often quite happy to shirk the dirty work and shift blame onto teachers. At one suburban school, for example, my wife confiscated a phone from a student who was playing with it in class. She put it in a drawer, from which it was subsequently stolen. The student’s mother, a power in the Booster Club, complained to the principal, who ordered my wife to pay for a new phone. When my wife, through her union, refused, the school promptly gave her two surprise classroom observations, on which basis they declared her performance substandard, and dismissed her. A year later, the school was ruled to be in violation of the union contract, but that’s not the point. Schools are political environments, and teachers need protection from the failures and foibles of administrators and parents.

Here’s an idea. Before my wife worked in education, she worked in health care. It is her observation that when patients have bad outcomes–that is, die–hospitals are very serious about rooting out why. When patients die, especially patients who were not admitted in dire condition, the hospital convenes a Mortality Panel to investigate what happened, with an aim to fixing the problem. Sometimes they find shortcomings by a doctor or a nurse or someone else on the staff, and take steps to address it. But often they find that the outcome wasn’t always within their control. Patients drink, smoke, take drugs, have poor diets, have underlying conditions, suffer environmental insults, and so on. Here’s the idea: if you want to hold teachers responsible for student performance, make the teachers’ performance part of a total evaluation. By all means, examine whether the teacher was up to the job. But other questions should also be asked. Did the student do his homework? Did the student come to class? Does the student possess a learning disability, or an underlying medical or psychological condition that affects performance, and does the school address those issues? Does the student have a parent at home? Did he have breakfast? Did he have a place to sleep? Is the student a discipline problem? What has the school done to address this kid’s challenges? If not, is it because of a funding issue?

By all means, hold teachers accountable. Better yet, hold everybody accountable.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.