Conservatives, Teachers, and Education: Free Will on Steroids?

Earlier today, after a bad day (and these are quite rare, actually), I had a discussion with a self-identified right-wing conservative (I'm not just attributing this to him) about education. While I'm no 'expert' in this area and haven't read much about specific arguments aimed to find problems and fix problems with our education system in the United States, I entertained a discussion and did my best. As always, if I'm way off base, please call me out.

I had mentioned in a discussion, at some point, that I think more money should be spent on education and that teachers often are not paid enough to be attracted to teaching. My 'opponent' explained that 'throwing more money' on the problems of education won't help the issues and that too many bad teachers are teaching that should be fired. Throughout the argument, the constant theme of 'bad teachers should be fired' was the main point.

I asked for a definition of a bad teacher and how to determine if a teacher is a bad teacher. I was told that teachers should be evaluated/paid on a '50-40-5-5' scale in which 50% is judged by students' performance on standardized tests, 40% is evaluation by persons from the state board of education who enter schools and evaluate teachers (how they do this, and by what standards, I was not told), 5% was accomplishment by teachers' colleagues, and I don't recall what the other 5% was.

I objected to evaluation on this scale primarily because judging teachers as 'good' or 'bad' by looking at the results of standardized tests can be very problematic. I noted various issues:*

  • While a teacher may be a good teacher, students might perform poorly on a standardized test simply because they are poor test-takers - this may not be the teacher's fault.
  • While a teacher may be a good teacher, students might just 'not care' and may perform poorly.
  • What about the student's parents, home life, and other variables? If students are raised by a very poor family that is largely absent, uncaring, etc, can we really put the blame on the teacher for the student's poor performance?
  • What about learning disabilities?
  • A teacher can be a very poor teacher, but students can still perform well.
  • A teacher can be a very poor teacher, but students have no initiative.
  • Many students have different learning styles and a specific teacher may not 'click' with a student.
  • Some students simply might not like certain teachers although they are good teachers and may refuse to do work for the teacher.
  • Factors such as student absenteeism or not doing work, even though the teacher is a good teacher, may lead to poor performance.

With many of these problems, can we really judge 50% of a teacher's 'worth' on how students score on standardized tests? If we're going to fire teachers mainly based on standardized test performance, many good teachers are going to be cut and more problems will persist. Of course, there may be situations in which standardized test scores can represent how well a teacher performs, but issues still remain.

Some of the sentiments from my 'opponent' were similar to those of my conservative neighbor
that I mentioned in a previous post. Conservatives often hold the idea that, no matter what one faces, individuals can be 'self-made' and can accomplish virtually anything without problems. This idea was applied to students when my opponent noted that my objections were 'abstract excuses' and students, regardless of home life and other issues, can perform well on standardized tests. He pointed to someone he knew who had many brothers and was very poor, but he still performed well. Hell, I've even had serious problems at home during high school (my parents divorced and my father was largely absent from my educational development), but pointing to one or two counter-examples of students who performed well despite a bad upbringing or other issues does not take away all of the children who have educational difficulties because of factors outside of the teacher's control.

My opponent than attacked my idea of giving more money to teachers and spending more money from our budget on education and said something along the lines of, "What are you kidding me? School taxes went up $45 and that money...you know where it went? It didn't go to the student down the block, but rather to the teacher who retired with a pension at the age of 50 and not to that student!" This objection, as you may have guessed, is a very bad one. My opponent fails to understand that money received by the state to go to education is distributed to various areas (it doesn't just go to one teacher who retired).

It's also not the case that just because money doesn't directly go to the students that it is not spent well (consider renovations to schools, wages paid to facilities staff...and even the retirement bonuses for teachers!). If teachers are allured with an attractive retirement plan, then great. The positions, then, ought to become more competitive and more qualified teachers should be willing to apply for positions.

Currently, qualifications of teachers have been declining, particularly in high-poverty public schools. Some schools will even let teachers slide with a degree from a program like the ones found on Online Teaching Degree if they are willing to accept low enough compensation. By bringing in more qualified teachers, competition -- a concept conservatives should be found of -- will increase. More competition should produce better teachers being placed in key positions. Better wages should attract these better teachers.

Conservatives like the one I mentioned often take a very 'one answer fixes everything and it's really simple' approach, but neglect to address other important factors. With a philosophy of 'free will on steroids' which underlies this type of thought in which anyone can accomplish whatever they want despite all problems, the argument is very problematic. Of course not all conservatives think like this, but this has been a common thread I have been experiencing recently.

I thought it was very easy to arrive at the conclusion that spending on education is very important, more money should be spent on education, and teachers should be paid more, but I was mistaken ... or so the conservatives say.

Again, education isn't my 'field' of experience and posting, so if you find any of my claims problematic, feel free to address them.

Here's some outside commentary from a teacher that is relevant here from the blog "Apples in the Orchard"

"These kids are not stupid, they have just been allowed to get away with doing nothing for the previous 11 years of their education. Listen, I'm not faulting the students so much as I am the system that got them so dysfunctionally screwed-up in the first place.

When NCLB was introduced, the focus was no longer about whether students perform well, it became more about how well teachers can get the students to perform. If students are not achieving, then it is the teacher’s problem. If students are not passing classes, well, that means that the teacher must be doing something wrong. By the time students get to high school these days, they have been trained that they are not responsible for their education—the teachers are.

I will admit that there have been (and still are) some pretty bad teachers out there. I’ve even had a few in my day. However, I fail to see the merit in having teachers be disproportionately responsible for motivating students. What about the parents? What about the students goals for themselves? I think that there is this attitude that has developed in the last twenty years or so that you don’t have to work hard in America to be perceived as successful. That fallacious notion starts with the message that students are given in school, and then it continues with the availability of easy credit and the ability to live beyond one’s means without taking responsibility for poorly considered decisions. That attitude is what has gotten our country in the dire economic straights we are facing today in America. Students have no idea how to make crucial decisions because they are being force-fed a bunch of horse puckey in order to pass some arbitrary standardized test, and they have no idea how to think for themselves."

*All of these issues might not apply in all cases, but even if one of them does apply, the idea of rating teachers' performance based on standardized testing appears to be problematic. Might some of these problems 'net out' on standardized tests and not be significant or otherwise already be accounted for when determining teachers' performance ratings? I don't know. I admit of ignorance and will be happy to respond and read objections.