Saturday, August 16, 2014

Teachers in Thunderdome

One of the dreams of reformsters is a school system in which teacher employment is shaped by neither tenure nor seniority. When the time comes for cutting staff, administrators will just grab their Big Spreadsheet of Teacher Effectiveness Data, look down at the bottom of list, point at the name next to the lowest rating number and declare, "Okay-- that's who's getting laid off."

We've talked about the huge problems with the data generation methods that would go into such a list. But let's talk about the effect that such a system would have on teaching staffs.

The system would turn shrinking school districts into education Thunderdomes (only "two teachers enter, one teacher leaves" will have a slightly different meaning).

Some of the best educational ideas out there are pushing teamwork and collaboration, built on the idea that all of our students belong to all of us teachers. Not my kids in my room, and your kids in your room. Unfortunately, most VAM-based systems don't see it that way. My kids determine my fate, and your kids determine yours.

So do I really want to help you with your kids when that means making my own job less secure?

Look, I think the overwhelming majority of teachers are good people who went into teaching for the right reason, and I think they would have a hard time saying, "No, I won't give you any help in figuring out how to teach that skill to your class." But how does anyone overlook the fact that she has a family to help support, kids to feed and put through college, a mortgage to pay off-- how does anyone look at that and say, "Yes, I am going to actively work to make my employment less secure."

Our current system depends on both official and unofficial mentoring of new teachers. How many pieces of advice, handy lesson tricks, moments of moral and educational support can you bring yourself to share when every bit of help you give to someone else is a bit of hurt for yourself?

Who really, truly imagines that a teacher beaten and carried out of Thunderdome will go home and cheerily announce, "Sorry, kids, but no new clothes and no new vacation for you. But i'm sure you'll be glad to know that I lost my job to someone with better numbers."

How will Thunderdome affect hiring? After all, some districts include classroom teachers in the interview process. Will teachers sit in interviews and think, "Yes, I want to find someone good enough to take my job!" Or will it become a tricky business of finding someone who's good enough not to be a big chunk of dead wood, but not so good that they're a threat? And will administrations figure this out and shut teachers out of the hiring process entirely?

In Thunderdome, teaching assignments will be critical. In a shrinking district, student and class distribution will become a matter of professional life and death. With so much riding on it, what do you suppose the odds are that the process will become twisted, driven by concerns other than what's best for the children? How hugely important will it be to smooch your principal's tuchus? How ugly will it be when certain students are turned into human hot potatoes?

How will Thunderdome affect the collegiality, the collaboration, the success of all students? Will it promote the learning of all students, or will it exacerbate the problem of teachers huddling in their own classrooms, keeping for just twenty-five students the educational assistance that could have helped 100?

Yes, teachers are professionals, and caring people, and usually naturally inclined to help and support each other. But Thunderdome raises the stakes. Helping a teacher become as good as, or better than, you would not just be a blow to your ego or trigger some sort of existential crisis-- it would mean your job. We already have evidence (as if we needed any), via multiple test cheating scandals, that when you pit people's devotion to philosophical purity against their desire to feed their children, purity often loses.

Teacher Thunderdome is a dumb idea that would do huge, irreparable harm to schools and create obstacles to student success. There's an old saying about how, when you're in a pack of people trying to escape a bear, you only have to be faster than the slowest person in the pack. That is not a scenario conducive to teamwork. There may be fields where the road to excellence is a one-lane footpath that must is best traveled alone, but in teaching, excellence always depends on the support and assistance of a larger team. To create a system that cuts that team apart, that makes teachers compete with the people they should be sharing with, is just dumb.


  1. The CORPORATE reformers can't understand a profession where collaboration is the key to everyone doing well, where no one pushes a product and where no one needs to "beat someone out" to get a reward. It's just not in their DNA.

    1. The thing is I csn't think of any professions where collaboration is not key to success. Even something like softare development requires huge amounts of collaboration and if an environment is created where people are all out for themselves, projects fail. A wise professor I had once said almost no one sets out to do a bad job. The first question is are people being setup for success or failure?

  2. You could trade students. But beware if you break a deal... There are companies such as GE and Cisco that cull their bottom 5%. Good times if you are having health or personal issues. :)

  3. Frankly, the reformistas DON'T CARE about the teaching profession. They want to deskill the profession, so that anyone can read a script or monitor a room full of computer terminals with students in front of them. That would be cheaper.