Friday, February 24, 2012

Teacher Ratings: A Good Reason to Leave the Profession


We went to the museum today for a Van Gogh exhibition and toured as much of the place as we could without dropping. My girls and I aren't much for the Arms & Armor types of displays, so we stuck with the painting and sculpture. My wife leans toward the impressionists and I pull toward modern. Our two girls, eight and ten, are getting a fairly good exposure to art. We were ticking off the museums we've been to in New York, Washington, and now Philadelphia, as well as at home in Syracuse. It's a good list and something they are coming to appreciate. All of which gets me to thinking about the ways in which we educate ourselves and our children.

I teach English which, aside from the arts themselves (art, dance, band and orchestra) is the most artistic subject in the curriculum. My girls are still in weekly art classes and both take an instrument at school (though my wife and I do a poor job of enforcing practice and the like). They also are tested half to death at school and their teachers are constantly talking about how to deal with the tests and still educate our kids. I feel the same way but am spared most of the testing since, in New York State high schools, at least for the time being, there is only one test and it is content free. My children are not nearly as fortunate.

The New York Times will soon publish the ratings of teachers in New York State. The idea, according to the politicians, is to measure teachers and perhaps shame those who are failing into doing a better job. Eventually, and not too long from now, these ratings will come to my neck of the woods and infect the school my children attend. This, among other reasons, is why I'm on the look out for something to do other than teach. I have lost a lot of hope in the profession as more and more control of it is wrested from the people who trained to teach by those who have been voted into office. I say, let the politicians teach the kids. I'd like to see Andrew Cuomo in a seventh-grade public school classroom in any of the major cities of New York. I want him to teach there for one year. Then, after he's done so, let him make policy.

The same is true for our President, but with a twist. Barack Obama is too busy to take even a day off to teach in a high school, so instead, he and Michelle should send their children to an impoverished D.C. school. They could join the PTO there and meet with the teachers on parent night. It would be intriguing for the secret service to report to the President about the fight that went on in the sixth-grade bathroom, the drugs sold outside the cafeteria in the middle school, and the quality of lunches in the cafeteria. This would be especially interesting if the school and District of Columbia had failed in their race to the top and was no longer qualified for increased funding.

I know some of what we need to do to improve education in the United States. We need to examine what is offered in the best schools public and private and then offer those same things in every school. If a school in the suburbs offers orchestra, football, AP Biology, a planetarium, and a library filled with the latest books, then that's what every school should offer. If kids are being brought to the theater, taken to challenge courses to build team skills, and being visited by politicians and NBA players in one school, these things need to happen in all schools.

But it's a question of money and fairness and schools are no longer funded and have never been fair. White, upper-class kids get the best schools. Black, lower-class kids get the worst. This is education policy in the United States. Publish all the rankings of teachers you want, but real change in this country will come only when we tell kids that every one of them matters just as much as the others.

I teach at an alternative school filled with poor kids. I do my best to honor them in a system that says, "you suck and your failures are all your fault." Some of their failures really are their fault, but less than half. They have been forgotten by our government and now their teachers will be chased out of the profession. I consider myself a good teacher and I think every day about how to get out and do work that is easier, more lucrative, and respected by the public and policies of our land. Teaching is my calling (if such things exist), but ranking me on how well my kids score on some test, that's just ridiculous and insulting.

Instead of teaching, I would much rather write on.