No Teacher Left Behind

Monica Klein, Opinions Editor

In his State of the Union Speech on Jan. 27, President Obama asked us (or, those of us who are unemployed and currently searching for post-collegiate jobs) to enter the academic sector. “Become a teacher!” he bellowed, and the halls of Congress shook with thunderous applause. One might wonder whether this explosion of enthusiasm stemmed not from an appreciation for future teachers, but rather from the attendees’ inner thankfulness that they themselves were spared from the current academic job circuit.

When Obama took office in 2008, he fortunately rid the country of Bush’s failed educational reform system, the No Child Left Behind Act — a program, ironically, in which undereducated students and underfunded schools were perpetually left behind and ignored, without remedial intervention or financial assistance. President Obama’s new plan, Race to The Top, promised to correct the Bush administration’s program, which the president claimed focused too intensely on standardized tests. Since its inception, Race to the Top has outlined impressive educational reform programs that aim to rectify many ineffective aspects of No Child Left Behind. However, Race to the Top has also elicited criticism from teachers’ unions across the country, who counter that Obama’s program unfairly punishes teachers for student failures. In July 2009, Race to the Top offered states the chance to compete for federal grants, and set requirements for potential victors. One section of the requirements measured state success based on the extent to which the states created “fair evaluation systems for teachers and principles” and used these systems to “inform decisions regarding compensating, promoting and retaining teachers and principals,” as well as to remove “ineffective tenured and untenured teachers.”

Undeniably, a method of evaluating teachers is a useful and necessary component to an effective educational system. Yet Race to the Top required teacher evaluations to weigh student improvement as the main factor in determining teacher retention or dismissal — if your student fails, then so do you.

Perhaps, as a prospective teacher, this proposal does not seem terribly daunting — work hard, improve student aptitude, remain employed. Yet as Diane Ravitch explains in her article “The Myth of Charter Schools,” many high-quality analyses found that “teachers statistically account for around 10¬¬–20 percent of [student] achievement outcomes.” The other 80 percent is made up of nonschool factors, such as parental guidance, family income, home environment, and mental and physical wellbeing. Teach in a wealthy, well-funded neighborhood with exceptional facilities and students whose parents foster study habits at home, and your work is 80 percent done before you begin class. Teach in an area with underfunded schools, low-income families and poor health facilities, and your 20 percent input might have minimal effect on your students’ success rates.

Throughout his uplifting speech, Obama returned time and again to the tenants of the American character — exceptionalism and self-determination. We are Americans, he reminded us, able to achieve anything if we try hard enough. Look at the men behind me, he reminded the nation. Joe Biden, who went to community college. John Boehner, who worked as a nighttime janitor. (Cue the waterworks.) They succeeded against the odds, Obama drilled into our heads, so why can’t you? And yet, in states where Race to the Top policy changes have been implemented, one must begin to notice which teachers are continually getting dismissed and which remain, successful in their posts. In Washington, D.C., for instance, then-educational chancellor Michelle Rhee fired over 241 teachers in 2010 — 164 of whom received weak evaluations under a new, student achievement-based assessment system. Although Rhee does deserve praise for taking action in the fault-ridden D.C. public school system, one must question whether her system of linking dismissals directly to student achievement was the correct method of evaluation. Perhaps, as Ravitch suggests, factors such as parenting, healthcare and afterschool programs were to fault for a lack of adequate student achievement scores.

After endless firings and re-hirings, the Educational Department may begin to notice which schools have teachers that perpetually fail to sustain continual “student achievement” in their classes. I doubt that these teachers all lack the exceptionalism and self-determination that Obama, and his Race to the Top teacher assessment methods, seem to exalt as the solution to any American problem.

Rather, there are deeper structural problems within the neighborhoods, families and healthcare systems that surround a given school, which have an enormous effect on “student achievement” — a much larger effect than an individual teacher, however much self-determination this teacher might bring to the classroom. If Obama continues to believe that educational success is based solely on the will of the individual teacher, however strong and determined this teacher may be, he will continue to find lagging test scores and an endless cycle of hirings and firings. Instead, Obama might consider jettisoning his rhetoric of individual capability, and begin investing in institutional structures that affect an educational system and the success of its students.

Admittedly, focusing on poverty and a failing health care system is a much more daunting task than encouraging the next generation to “become teachers!” Yet if his goal is truly to improve the American educational system, Obama should not ignore the connection between societal factors and educational success. As self-determined as an individual teacher may be, structural investments in society will inevitably be a stronger force in improving American education on a national scale.