I read something by a highly successful educational consultant one time that said she could walk into any struggling school and spot the majority of their problems in about 15 minutes. That’s because the truth about fixing education is very objective: create a culture of high standards, give good lessons and rigorous work, and impart subject-matter expertise.
But something gets muddied up on the way to doing that. We make it political and convoluted and more complicated that it should be, until the whole thing just looks like a lost cause.
There are some of us out there that don’t care what makes it difficult. We only care that it gets fixed.
Most readers believe that “how it gets fixed” is the source of the debate in education. That is not true. How it gets fixed is simple. Hundreds of schools all over the United States run excellent schools amid difficult circumstances every single day. If we really wanted to fix things, we would just do what they do.
But factoring in all of the various adult-centered stakeholders and interest groups makes instituting objective solutions nearly impossible. And at that point, the question is not so much how it gets fixed as much as which stakeholder is going to come out on top. Outcome-based educational reform almost invariably loses to process-based compromises in Hawaii.
One of the best examples of this is the current compromise on teacher performance evaluations.
Fist of all, student achievement-based teacher evaluations are important. The number one indicator of student achievement is teacher effectiveness, and teachers should be evaluated based on student outcomes.
The primary objection to student achievement-based teacher evaluations is that teachers cannot control the demographic of students in their classroom. This argument stems from a fear of and inexperience with data-based evaluation systems.
Sales staff in nearly every retail industry work under quotas every day. They do not control the demographic of customers entering their store, nor their distribution among the staff on the floor, but they are still held accountable for their results. Setting objective expectations creates tangible goals around which achievement-based cultures are formed.
And teachers, like sales staff, deserve to get paid handsomely for highly effective work. Is it fair that sometimes results may vary based on which kids are in a class? It is at least as fair as paying everyone the same amount for varying levels of effort and quality of work.
Some teachers complain that the tests with which students will be measured are flawed. As a writing teacher, I could not agree more. The majority of my students speak Pidgin, and the standardized tests currently used to assess English language skills only evaluate reading. By the time students reach me in 11th grade, the majority are too far behind to ever be able to write in formal, academic English.
But those skills were not being taught before standardized tests were introduced, and if the tests did cover these skills, it would be the first time they were ever part of our school-wide curriculum. Standardized tests have their weaknesses, but if humans can build a nuclear submarine and discover DNA, we can come up with a competent, comprehensive standardized test.
The last major opposing sentiment that I hear is that teachers need to be more than instructors. They need to be counselors, mentors, and role models. In this claim lies an insinuation that a strong focus on achievement necessarily devalues the interpersonal aspects of teacher-student relationships, or that caring for students’ non-academic needs excuses the lack of learning within certain classrooms, both of which are untrue. These beliefs reflect a popular paradigm that has proved unsuccessful for the last several decades.
But even with all that, the current joint Department of Education-Hawaii State Teachers Association teacher evaluation system is going to damage education in Hawaii rather than improve it. It is a process-focused attempt to look busy while appeasing adult stakeholders and doing nothing to fix the real problems in our classrooms for our students — unless the problem is teachers.
Yes, there are more ineffective teachers in Hawaii’s schools than we should allow, but under a similar evaluation system in New York, 98 percent of teachers passed.
I’m not saying that we need to see more people fail in order to know that it’s working. I am saying that, fist of all, if a 98 percent passing rate reflects a flawed system, then we are bringing to Hawaii a proven ineffectual and absurdly cumbersome evaluation system that does nothing but add bureaucracy. And if a 98 percent passing rate accurately reflects teacher quality, then teacher quality is not the problem and we need to focus on the real causes rather than wasting resources.
We cannot fire our way to a better education system. And even if we could, it is not the teachers that we should fire first, it is the leaders and policy makers that have continually failed to effectively lead. When you are losing a war, you do not sack the field soldiers holding the guns. You sack the strategists.
Our vice principals and administrators already have Herculean workloads. Now, under the new evaluation system, a vice principal with 34 teachers in a school with a four-period block schedule must conduct three meetings per semester with each teacher. That is a total of 204 meetings within a calendar year of 180 instructional days, in addition to their current duties.
Is it reasonable to add enormous and entirely unsupported responsibilities to already struggling administrations? Can one realistically expect this new evaluation system to be administered effectively in a manner that will address our education problems in Hawaii? The answer is a clear and resounding no.
Michael Wooten is a former sergeant in the U.S. Army and University of California Berkeley graduate who came to Hawaii as a Teach For America teacher in 2008. He earned his masters degree in education from the University of Hawaii and currently teaches English and film at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach.