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When Teachers Are Publicly Questioned

How the Untied States decides what a “good teacher” is and what we do with that information has gained national attention in the past two weeks. The controversy involves “value-added” measurements of teacher effectiveness, which evaluate teachers based upon their students’ one-time standardized test scores. In places such as New York City and Los Angeles, these scores have been used to publicly rank teachers in local newspapers. In the most recent and egregious case, public school teacher Pascale Mauclair from Queens was named the “city’s worst teacher” by the New York Post based upon these measurements.

A number of scholars and writers have set the proverbial record straight in the past week, including Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond and EdWize education wire.  These articles reiterate the shaky practice of value-added teacher evaluations; very appropriately scold the Post, Mayor Bloomberg, and the NYC Department of Education for such a practice; and offer a more accurate portrayal of Pascale Mauclair, who is a perfectly fine teacher by all reasonable standards. 

What has not been addressed with this issue to sufficient depth is the following question: How do these types of attacks affect students who wish to become teachers? This is not a rhetorical question. I spend almost every day with these students educating them to be teachers, so I know the answer.

It makes them not want to become teachers anymore.

Is this a surprise? Who would want to enter a profession assailed to such a degree that one might be called out on the pages of a newspaper by way of a measurement that is unquestionably suspect. This is analogous to ranking doctors based upon how quickly their patients heal after visiting a doctor’s office. Certainly, a visit to the doctor’s office can be an important step in restoring health, but there are numerous other factors that impact health such to the degree that to ascribe the worth of a doctor wholly upon the health of the patient is clearly wrong.

If this is the logic of professional assessment for the era, then let us apply it to all professions. Let’s rank doctors based upon how quickly their patients heal. Let’s rank defense lawyers solely upon how many cases they win. Let’s rank congressmen and congresswomen upon their abilities to achieve bipartisan consensus about the economic woes that affect our daily lives. And let’s stay true to this form of evaluation by publishing the pictures and names of the lowest ranking professional in newspapers, just like the New York Post did. Let’s apply this flawed logic of evaluation not just to education but to other professions and see what happens.

But we won’t do this. We won’t because we understand that a patient’s genetic disposition, chosen diet, and more affect their health, too. We know that often times defense lawyers (perhaps appointed by the state) have to take clients who cases cannot win, but they deserve legal counsel anyway. We know that some elected officials would rather hold to rigid political ideologies than compromise for the good of common folks. We won’t apply this flawed system of evaluation to other professions because we know it is flawed. Yet more and more, teachers are subject to it.

We should be clear to understand, too, that these attacks on teachers are racialized. School reform and “failure” is constructed in the news as a decidedly urban issue. And “urban” is most frequently a pseudonym for Black, Brown and other. This overlooks the fact that, by way of these flawed measurements, teachers in many types of schools—urban, suburban, rural and others that do not fit into these limited categories—will be ranked as unsatisfactory and at the bottom, too. Yet, these types of explicit and public attacks happen less often, if ever, in non-urban districts. In this way, these attacks contribute to the longstanding notion that Black and Brown teachers (and workers more broadly) should be controlled rather than control their own labor.

Overall, these attacks and the politicians and media channels that lead them will be part of the problem and not part of the solution. The “best and brightest” young adults who are recruited into teaching will be smart enough to want no part in a profession that is controlled and humiliated by outsiders.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is assistant professor of teacher education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives: Elements, Embodiment and Higher Edutainment” (Routledge).

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