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Sunday, July 27, 2014

What’s Wrong With Teacher Accountability?
by Gary K. Clabaugh

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s simple-minded and dehumanizing! And here is why.

Think back to the best and worst teachers you ever had. Then ask yourself what you learned from each. I’m not just asking about subject matter, mind you. I’m asking what you learned.

Here is what I’m getting at. The best teacher I ever had was Dr. Frederick Fuhr. He was my 7th grade world history teacher. Sure he taught me some history. But 60 years later I can’t remember what it was. What I do remember, and what made him the best teacher I ever had, wasn’t his presentation of the subject matter. It was his courage and determination.

Crippled by a bout of childhood polio, Dr. Fuhr’s legs were paralyzed. Encased in full-length metal braces he had to swing this dead weight pendulum-like as he struggled forward on his crutches. But although he had difficulty even standing, he still stood head and shoulders above all my other teachers. Why? Because of the way he daily conquered adversity. I marveled at his guts and determination.

So what did he teach me that has lasted all these years? He taught me how important true grit really is. Would Dr. Fuhr’s students have faired well on a standardized test? I don’t know. What I do know is that every kid who had him enjoyed a unique opportunity to learn things of great personal worth.

Now to the worst teacher I ever had and what she taught me. Since there may have been extenuating circumstances for her transgressions, let’s allow her to remain nameless. We’ll just call her Miss Smith. Anyway, Miss Smith presided heavy-handedly over my 4th grade class. Obese, unattractive and mean-spirited, she sucked the joy from learning like a shop vac. Worse, she was ever vigilant for opportunities to inflict psychic and/or physical pain on her 10 year-old charges. (In those days teachers could do that with relative impunity.)

What did I learn from her? So far as subject matter is concerned, I don’t remember. But I vividly remember learning to tread carefully in the presence of a tyrant. My father reinforced this lesson. I complained to him about Miss Smith early on. Her reputation was well established, and he acknowledged that my complaint was likely valid. But knowing there was only one 4th grade in my school, and having been knocked about quite a bit by life himself, he explained what I must do. “Your job,” he said, “is to figure out how to deal with her. You’ll have to deal with more like her in the future.” I eventually did figure out how to shield my soul from her withering presence. And, just as my father predicted, this lesson is one I have used over and over.

Would Miss Smith’s students have done well on a high stakes test? They might have. She sure scared hell out of everyone and fear might well have been sufficient motivation. But would this mean she was a good teacher?

The point of all this could not be simpler. The most real, the most lasting, aspect of schooling is not the subject matter, but the teachers. In a very real sense, they are the curriculum. Why is it necessary to remind “reformers of this elemental fact? Perhaps because this fact doesn’t matter if all you care about is U.S. workers besting foreign workers at compliant efficiency. But it surely does matter if your aim is to educate wiser and more decent human beings.

If the past is prologue, we will eventually get over this latest of school “reform” crazes. (We ultimately shook off a remarkably similar obsession with school efficiency during the second decade of the 20th Century.) In the meantime, though, it is foolish and destructive to continue this focus on standardized test scores as the key measure of teacher effectiveness.

Instead of trying to assess teachers as we do assembly line workers, let’s focus on whether they are knowledgeable persons of integrity and honor who are caring, in touch with human feelings, capable of inspiring hope, and of igniting imagination. Is that a tall order? You bet. But so is good teaching. Are these things hard to measure? Of course they are. But, they are supremely important nonetheless; and it dehumanizes both teacher and student to pretend otherwise.

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