Let’s take recent statistics from the state government at face value for a moment, shall we?
According to recent state tests, only 31 percent of New York students in grades 3-8 were proficient in either English Language Arts or Mathematics.
According to other recent scores, 91.5 percent of teachers in New York State are either “highly effective” or “effective.”
Assuming we take these numbers at face value, what conclusions can we draw?
Given the fact that virtually all of the non-proficient students had an effective or highly effective teacher, we have to accept that either even extremely capable teachers can’t turn around the causes of poor school performance — such as poverty, poor nutrition and exposure to violence — which is what many educational experts have been saying for years.
Really bad teachers can probably hurt students — New York obviously has so many top quality teachers that we’ll simply never know from the data sample — but good teachers alone aren’t enough to turn failing students around.
That means that all this emphasis on teacher quality — all this hubbub about whether and how to evaluate them — is misplaced. When a state with over 91 percent effective/highly effective teachers is producing a student body where over two-thirds of the students aren’t up to stuff, teachers are simply the wrong group to focus on. Trying to get that extra 8.5 percent up to stuff is a waste of time and resources.
Since we know the teachers are excellent, the state should immediately start finding other factors to improve student performance.
That is, of course, if the state’s statistics can actually be taken at face value.
When the state’s dismal 2013 student test scores were first announced, I strongly suggested that the scores were more meaningless than usual: The state was testing students over a curriculum it hadn’t fully put into classrooms yet. Of course the scores were bad. If you studied for the drivers license test only to be given a bar exam at the last minute, what exactly would the scores tell us about the kind of driver you’d be?
I don’t have the same methodological critiques of the teacher evaluations, but I have to say the result strikes me as absurd on its face. Ninety-one percent of state teachers are effective or better? In what fantastic world would this be true?
That’s not a crack at teachers — it’s rather a statement about human nature. Most people in most professions muddle along, good enough to not be fired but otherwise so-so. Can you name me one field in which you’d honestly believe 91 percent of the practitioners are highly competent?
It’s certainly not true of financiers — especially the ones with from the best schools — who have spent the last decade showing us just how wrong they can be.
Software developers? Not even close. Lawyers? If only. Politicians? It is to laugh.
Doctors? Do you know how many hospital infections get spread because doctors don’t wash their hands?
Journalists? You couldn’t possibly be laughing harder than me right now.
If you want to argue that 91 percent of New York’s teachers are at least minimally competent to do their jobs … yeah, I’d by that. If that’s what these numbers mean, though, the state hasn’t measured much of anything. “At least minimally competent” doesn’t tell us anything we want to know.
My contention is that for all the hubbub about measuring and testing this year, that the state’s results tell us nothing useful about either students or teachers. That these numbers, like most of the ones the state produces on testing and education, are a meaningless gloss on a meaningless education policy.
But if the state intends to take those numbers at face value, then the only reasonable thing for them to do is start focusing on the other factors, besides teachers, that can impact student performance. Because we’re simply not going to improve student performance by focusing on teachers, who the state’s own tests show to be overwhelmingly good at their jobs.
Benjamin Wachs writes for Messenger Post Media, and archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com. Email him at Benjamin@Fiction365.com.