Consider this job-related scenario: The CEO of your company hires some consultants and creates with them a brand-new way of assessing employee performance. Employees are now going to be evaluated, in part, on 22 separate measures spanning 9 categories.
But there is more. The nature of your business is such that projects take years to complete; each year they are handed off to a new worker. So depending on where you've been assigned in the process, you might have a relatively fresh project or one that's been worked on by many of your colleagues. Under the new system, your assessment (22 measures in 9 categories) is based in large part on how well those colleagues who worked on the project before you did, and how well the system as a whole is doing.
In order to complete their assessments, your supervisors observe you for roughly 2.7% of the time you spend on the job - actually, that's an inflated figure, since it's the number of days on which they are required to observe you divided by the number of days you work in one year; nothing in the assessment system requires your supervisor to spend and entire day with you to observe. In terms of hours, then, the percentage of time they spend with you is even lower.
Sound like fun? It certainly hasn't been for the 165 teachers in the Washington, DC school district who were just fired because of low marks received during their assessment last year (another 76 were fired for licensing problems, which is a wholly different matter). And it's certainly not fun for the 737 others who have one school year to bring their performance in line with the metrics established by Michelle Rhee, the school district's Chancellor.
Any educator - but especially a public school teacher - is given somewhere between 15-30 students for around 186 days of instruction each year. Some of the students will have emotional disorders, others will have learning disabilities. Multiple learning styles have been discovered, and some of the kids will do better at verbal processing while others excel visually. Some students will have a form of dyslexia. Some of them will be chronically hungry. Some of them are being physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by family members. Some of the kids in any given public school classroom were sent to pre-kindergarten or Head Start and started learning their letters and numbers at 3 or 4 years old. Some of them have been set in front of a TV since birth and never looked at a book until kindergarten - and still only look at books in a school setting. And of course some of the kids are cared-for, are bright and well-fed and healthy.
It is the teacher's job to take in these children, all of them, and attempt to teach them things like math, reading, spelling, proper manners, hygiene, healthy eating, how to take care of their teeth, what it means to be honest, to have confidence, social studies, science, how to exercise, and much, much more.
A reasonable assessment system would take all of these issues into account and would work closely with teachers to see how well each child is progressing given the particular context the child is in. Perhaps little Johnny is still having trouble reading, but he doesn't wet his pants anymore. I'd say that's a damn good educational outcome, because I remember kids in 2nd and 3rd grade who had problems with that. Maybe little Sally is behind in math, but because of her teacher's intervention she's in a foster home now instead of being abused by her parents every night.
But we don't have a reasonable assessment system in DC, because almost everyone - right, left or in-between - has decided that if our schools are in trouble it must be due to lazy, dumb, greedy teachers and corrupt teachers' unions. Across the USA teachers have become scapegoats for what is yet another ginned-up faux crisis the right wing is pushing on us in order to meet one of their despicable goals - this one being the complete abolition of public education. The best way to create economic mobility is to educate everyone regardless of their socioeconomic background, and that is simply unacceptable to conservatives.
Michelle Rhee is wrong. She's creating a system that makes it easier for her to pigeonhole teachers, force them to conform to what she wants and fire them if they fail to conform. Just like with salaries in public education, that's exactly backwards from the way it should be. Teachers already have hard enough jobs. Instead of cheering on administrators like Rhee who are hell-bent on making teachers' jobs even more difficult, we should be forcing them to take on more responsibility themselves. If Rhee wants better teacher evaluations, then she and her administrators should be willing to take on the hard work of actually evaluating the teachers according to criteria that teachers face in the real world, not artificial metrics thought up at mahogany conference tables.
Some teachers are bad at their jobs, and they should be made to get better or get fired. But when 23% of your total workforce is either fired or put on probation the first year you implement your new system, it means your system doesn't work. That Michelle Rhee and anyone else responsible for such a colossal failure still has a job is a testament to the Right-wing Noise Machine and its ability to set the terms of almost any debate. If this assessment system is the best Rhee can do, she's at best totally incompetent and more likely a danger to the DC school district's ability to function at all.
But a few years from now, after Rhee has fired thousands of teachers, the DC schools will still be 'in trouble,' the right-wing will still have everyone in the country convinced that our entire educational system is 'in crisis,' and very serious people from all across the political spectrum will stroke their chins and nod when the solution they're given is to fire more teachers.