BONIFIELD: More essays, fewer grades, for teachers

July 14, 2012

Jake BonifieldAs election season heats up, the races for governor and superintendent of public instruction are drawing the public’s eye to education reform. Specifically, it seems the 2012 contests, or at least the discourse they arouse, will center on how the slew of changes ushered in during the 2011 session are affecting the classroom.

Education is quickly joining the ranks of taxes, drugs and health care as a policy area that galvanizes those on either side and leaves little room for genuine discussion. As the same themes of accountability, resources and efficiency are again brought to focus, I find myself asking questions along slightly different lines.

I have been fortunate enough to attend both public and private schools, at which I have encountered both extraordinary and subpar teachers, administrators and staff. None of them fit neatly into a category of highly effective or unaccountable, however. That sort of simplistic litmus test conjures images of Willy Wonka’s “good egg/bad egg” detector; just run our teachers through a formula and, at the end, they will have been found good or bad, effective or not.

The philosophy of reform is to inflict—to borrow a Richard Murdock verb—“accountability” on our public education system. This approach falls victim to the same dangerous misdirection it encourages in the classroom. By placing such a high emphasis on test scores, we favor decisiveness and faux certainty over understanding, conflating a passing grade with mastery of content and craft.

The system for evaluating our teachers should be an essay, not multiple choice. Every teacher I can remember having an impact on my education has always given me something harder, something more meaningful—feedback. Notes in the margin, and the time it takes to offer substantive criticism were, in retrospect, the crucial factors in my learning.

You cannot improve public education by vilifying public educators. Rather, we must engage teachers, administrators, students and reformers alike in a serious dialogue with a very real goal—understanding.

It is not black-or-white, it takes critical thinking and analysis, and it is imperfect, but it does something no system of evaluation for teachers has managed to do. It does so by inviting teachers into the process.

More time should be spent determining what characteristics model teachers have that ineffective teachers don’t. Arbitrary lines in the sand discourage teachers from taking the same risks on behalf of their students that shareholders demand of the most successful companies in the private sector. If reformers want to treat schools like businesses, they must start viewing teachers as professionals worthy of a seat at the table.

Advocates will tell you they are on the side of our teachers, offering a pathway to—in the rare, ideal scenario—six-figure salaries. Paying teachers more is a good idea, and that reformers have embraced this long-sought goal of public education supporters is admirable, but they have done so without a thorough understanding of what motivates teachers.

If you asked a teacher if they could use more money, they would probably answer T for true. But if you ask our educators what motivates them, where their passion lies, they would more likely respond with an essay on future generations, the promise of transformational education, and the indescribable rewards that come with making good on that promise.

Improving education requires a lot of work, diverse approaches and a variety of perspectives. Above all, whatever the solution, let’s evaluate our teachers with essays, not Scantrons.•

• Bonifield is a senior at DePauw University and president of Hoosier Youth Advocacy, an organization focused on increasing youth participation in the Indiana General Assembly. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.
 

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