Friday, August 24, 2018

Do you support sending our best teachers to our most challenging school environments?

The question in the title to this blog has been posed to me twice in the last week, which I think is due to states releasing their accountability judgments of schools just before the kids all come back.

Common sense might suggest that only an idiot would say no. I'm not an idiot (according to most people I meet) but I'm here to say that we'll do more harm than good if we oversimplify our responses and just say, "sure."

First, we need to identify what we mean by a best teacher. I can do that easily. A best teacher is one who can maximize an educational benefit for the children in his or her classroom. We could get even more specific if we wanted and say that the best teacher for a child is the one who can maximize the benefit for that specific child, but for the sake of the argument here, lets keep it general: a best teacher is one who can maximize the educational benefit for children.

Second, we need to identify what we mean by our most challenging school environments. I can also do that easily. Those would include places that have historically had poor school leadership, or teachers not committed to their profession, or that serve communities of children who through no fault of their own find themselves in environments that make learning a real challenge and the students would benefit from additional help and support.

To take those best teachers and ask them to serve in our most challenging environments as described above would, by any stretch of the imagination, be a good use of a valuable resource.

However, there are huge issues for how we identify best teachers and our most challenging environments given that state test scores tend to be the main mechanism for doing both. Schools with high test scores are presumed to be quality schools, while schools with low scores are presumed to be bad schools, and so too with the teachers in the building. Thus a simplistic approach to selecting the best teachers and placing them into our most challenging environments would be to take teachers from high scoring places and put them into low scoring places.

This would likely do more harm than good for two basic reasons: first, state test scores on their own (contrary to popular belief) were never designed to identify the quality of a teacher. Test scores of the type that produce consistent results over time are useful to researchers in that they can signal where a researcher ought to take a deeper look, but whether that researcher finds something worthy of a positive or negative judgment is a different issue entirely.

For example, a group of students from a low-scoring high school classroom may all still be in school due to a dedicated teacher who prevented them from dropping out—that is not failure on the part of the teacher, but rather, evidence that we might want that teacher in our most challenging environment.

Or consider a group of students in a high scoring school who are where they are entirely because of stable homes, highly educated parents, and a desire for higher education, and their performance can be shown to be the same regardless of which teacher was placed before them. That is not evidence of success on the part of those teachers, but of something else. And since we have no real evidence of their effectiveness, we have no way of knowing if placing them in our most challenging environment will have the desired effect.

If we assume that state test scores on their own identify the best teachers, we risk sending the wrong teacher to our most challenging environments, and the entire system of education would be less, not more efficient as a result.

The exact same is true when trying to define our most challenging environments. If we rely on test scores as the signal we risk disrupting schools in which effective work is taking place and not sending the best teachers to where they can be most effective. Replacing the teacher mentioned above who has proven capable of keeping at risk students in school risks putting a less capable teacher in his or her place. Replacing an effective school leader with strong ties to the community that can be leveraged to support at risk students with a less effective leader may occur if you try and judge leadership through test scores without looking at underlying effects.

The risk is this: by relying on test scores to identify the best teachers and our most challenging environments, we risk sending unqualified teachers to replace qualified teachers, and we risk sending them to places where they are not needed as opposed to places where they are.

You do that and you'll hurt children far more than you'll help them--and mostly those who really need us. I'm all for sending the best teachers to our most challenging environments, but only once we have a valid means for identifying both.


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