Sunday, March 7, 2010

Teacher Accountability and Standardized Testing

COLUMN NOTES: I wrote this column in the hopes that some readers, especially teachers, might respond. And there are quite a few comments on the newspaper's website, which you can read here.

HARBESON: Teachers have a valid complaint ... sort of

I’ve noticed that whenever the topic of teacher accountability arises, teachers are quick to offer many reasons as to why yearly student testing is not a good way to evaluate teacher competency. Most often, we are told that it’s not fair to make teachers accountable to how their students score on a test because there are so many variables that can get in the way of teaching. I actually agree with much of what the teachers say.

Yet when I hear these comments, it sounds like teachers don’t want to be held accountable for doing what they say they can do — teach. Many people, for example middle managers, are accountable for others’ job performance, even when there may be variables that are outside of their control, so why should teachers be any different when asked to account for the work they are paid to do? Is education really so different that professionals in this field cannot be expected to be held to number-oriented standards like those in many other jobs?

It is particularly important that government school teachers do so because their pay comes directly from compulsion. In a free market, the consumer can use any means to decide that a teacher is not working out and stop paying him. But we are not able to do that with the government schools. The resistance to testing as a means of judging competency confuses me because teachers say they are disrespected as professionals and tell us that it takes lots of specialized training to teach children.

Doesn’t professionalism imply an ability to be effective despite the uncontrolled variables? In addition, their insistence that one have the proper degrees and certificates certainly implies a confidence in testing.

How can teachers complain about not being respected and at the same time tell us we can’t hold them accountable by using the same means they do to restrict entry into their profession? We also hear how teachers feel underpaid. How can teachers complain about not being paid enough and at the same time not want to be held accountable in a way that could help prove he or she deserves more pay?

But again, what I hear many teachers saying at this point is that it’s just not that simple. Even after all of this training and certification, teachers tell us that it’s really not completely up to them whether a child learns what he or she needs to learn in their class to pass the standardized test. They say there are so many other variables and issues that can skew the outcome such as student motivation.

I agree. Student motivation is a huge problem in the schools. Lots of time and money is spent on finding the most effective — and extremely manipulative — means to get kids to learn exactly what the adults want them to learn, at the exact time the adults want them to learn it. As long as we continue to make such arbitrary demands on the learner, completely ignoring individual desires and needs, and as long as we continue to think of education as forcing required data into the kids’ brains, student motivation will be a problem.

So in the end I have to take the teacher’s side. They are exactly right when they point out that student learning is dependent on many variables that go way deeper than the ability of the teacher in the classroom. Of course, no amount of testing or money paid to teachers will solve those issues the teachers correctly identify, so now what? I’d start by separating education from government but I wonder if teachers would agree.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson is putting her big toe into the pool and testing out the waters of the education establishment.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)


  1. If a person's real goal is *education*, they will agree with you. If their goal is protecting the government indoctrination system that currently exists they will not agree with you. This separates the *teachers* from the "classroom Rulers".

  2. "I’d start by separating education from government but I wonder if teachers would agree."

    Prediction: nope.