Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

“Despite the Data”: Higher Education Fails Equity, Inclusion with SETs

Entering higher education in my early 40s after 18 successful years as a high school English teacher, I remain 17 years later baffled and even disappointed at the mess of contradictions that characterizes an institution populated by the most educated people possible.

Immediately I had to hold my tongue against the pervasive culture of college professors bemoaning constantly how busy they are. When my high school teaching career ended, I was wearing a wrist brace because I was hand marking about 4000 essays and 6000 journals per year while teaching five course and about 100 students (many colleagues taught 20+ more students per year).

I also coached many of those years, with work days from about 7:30 AM until 10 or 11 PM in the evening.

By contrast, I teach two first-year writing courses each fall (as part of my full load, a minimum of five course per academic year), a total of 24 students, and my teaching schedule tends to be three days a week, often a Monday evening class included.

The Ivory Tower effect is a bit more accurate than I would prefer.

More disturbing, however, is the power of tradition among academics, a dynamic that works against practices and policies being based on evidence (and thus in a state of flux when that evidence changes).

While the U.S. has a long history of characterizing and even demonizing higher education as some sort of liberal cult, the truth is that the very worst qualities of higher education are from its conservative urges as institutions.

Of course, you can find a disproportionate number of professors who have left-leaning social and philosophical ideologies, but the most powerful department/colleges in higher education are often the most conservative—political science, economics—or the most apt to take non-political poses—the hard sciences.

This disconnect between how higher education is perceived and how higher education exists stems from, in part, I think, higher education presenting itself rhetorically as progressive—mission statements, social justice initiatives, etc.

However, with a little unpacking, we can expose that practices and policies often contradict and even work against that rhetoric and those initiatives.

One example that I have addressed again and again is the use of student evaluations of teaching (SET) to drive significantly the promotion, tenure, and reward process.

Consider a few points raised in Colleges Are Getting Smarter About Student Evaluations. Here’s How by Kristen Doerer:

“Having a female instructor is correlated with higher student achievement,” Wu said, but female instructors received systematically lower course evaluations. In looking at prerequisite courses, the two researchers found a negative correlation between students’ evaluations and learning. “If you took the prerequisite class from a professor with high student teaching evaluations,” Harbaugh said, “you were likely, everything else equal, to do worse in the second class.”

The team found numerous studies with similar findings. “It replicates what many, many other people found,” said Harbaugh. “But to see it at my own university, I sort of felt like I had to do something about it.”…

Studies since the 1980s have found gender bias in student evaluations and, since the early 2000s, have found racial bias as well. A 2016 study of data from the United States and France found that students’ teaching evaluations “measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” and that more-effective instructors got lower ratings than others did….

Despite the data, at many colleges, particularly research-based institutions, student evaluations are still the main measure, if not the only one, of teaching effectiveness in promotion-and-tenure decisions.

Common among universities and colleges across the U.S., diversity and inclusion are pervasive problems. Poor students and students of color are underrepresented in many colleges, especially the so-called elite institutions; women and people of color are equally underrepresented on faculties.

Nothing rings more true or frustrating than Doerer’s use of “despite the data.”

I have rejected SETs directly in my bi-annual self-evaluation for merit raises. I have consistently advocated the administration and our faculty status committee to end or greatly reduce the influence of SETs.

In all of the situations, I have repeatedly shared the research, the data:

And without fail, those with power, who tend to be white men, offer a tepid acknowledgement of the research followed by a quick “But we have to do something.” Doerer includes a response (from a white man) that sounds all too familiar:

Ken Ryalls, president of the IDEA Center, a nonprofit higher-education consulting organization, recognizes the bias but thinks doing away with evaluations isn’t the answer. He opposes efforts to eliminate the voice of students. “It seems ludicrous,” he said, “to have the hubris to think that students sitting in the classroom have nothing to tell us.”

“The argument that you should get rid of student evaluations because there is bias inherently is a bit silly,” he said. “Because basically every human endeavor has bias.”

The “yes, but” dynamic works to maintain the inequitable status quo. And as Ryalls’s comment shows, the “yes, but” response is often a distraction.

No one is arguing to remove the voice of students, but as Doerer’s reporting confronts and as the research base shows, student evaluations of teaching are fraught with student biases that corrupt the teacher evaluation process, effectively discouraging women, people of color, and international faculty from remaining in a hostile environment with very real negative career consequences.

For example, calls to end SETs a primary or major instruments for promotion, tenure, and merit pay are often part of a larger examination of how to make student feedback more effective for teaching and learning.

Doerer notes:

That’s in large part why Oregon decided to try a midterm student-experience survey that only the applicable faculty member can view. An instructor can make changes in the middle of a semester, when students can still benefit, encouraging them to give constructive feedback.

For many years, I have asked students for feedback at midterm, and explained that I would like the opportunity to address their concerns, and also to identify what is working well, because receiving complaints after a course really benefits no one.

Further, when student feedback is for the professor only, it becomes a conversation about improving teaching and learning, and as a professor myself, I am best equipped to interpret student comments. I consistently receive feedback intended as negative by students, but will never change them because they misunderstand my role and their roles in the classroom.

Yes, student feedback is valuable, but it likely cannot be simply or easily reduced to numbers, formulas, or even verbatim interpretations of their direct words.

It has taken nearly four decades of high-stakes accountability in K-12 education for people to begin to acknowledge that high-stakes accountability causes far more harm than good.

In higher education, if equity and inclusion are real goals, we can and must seek ways that students have safe and open spaces for providing their professors feedback, we can and must better support faculty in how to interpret that feedback in ways that improve their teaching and student learning, but to reach those goals, we must end the practice of using SETs in significant ways to evaluate faculty.

Higher education must end the tradition of “despite the data,” recognize that rhetoric means less than nothing if contradicted by practices, policies, and a culture of “yes, but.”

Teacher v. Professor: On Why Anyone Would Be an Educator

While cycling with a new acquaintance, I navigated through the usual questions about how long I have been a professor, and then, after I mentioned that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years before moving to higher education, the follow up about which was easier, or which I preferred.

On this ride and during the conversation, I realized I am quickly approaching the tipping point in my career since I am starting my 17th year as a professor, just one year away from having been a professor for as long as I was a high school teacher—the identity I remain strongly associated with about myself professionally.

Being a writer has held both aspects of my being an educator together, but K-12 teaching and being a professor in higher education (especially my role as a teacher educator) are far more distinct than alike.

However, and most disturbing, K-12 teachers and college professors are increasingly sharing disillusionment with being educators as K-12 teachers are fleeing public education and fewer are majoring/certifying to teach while quit lit has become a phenomenon throughout higher education.

My journey as an educator offers some unique insight since I have nearly two decades in each contexts, K-12 and higher education. As well, my work in higher education remains directly connected to K-12 classroom teaching (I am a teacher educator and spend time observing in public schools as well as having professional and personal relationships with public school teachers).

For a majority of my time as a high school teacher, I was department chair, and several of those years included being a coach. My days were often very long, starting at 7:30 AM and ending on match days as late as 11 PM.

As a high school English teacher, I taught around 100 students or more at a time and had five classes a day, usually 2-3 preps. Since I focused on teaching my students to write, I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journals a year.

In 1995, I entered a doctoral program, an EdD in curriculum and instruction; I continued to work full-time and even maintained my adjunct work at local colleges. The doctorate experience was sobering since every other candidate I encountered was seeking a doctorate to leave the K-12 classroom—except me.

I completed my degree and was still resolute I would teach high school until I retired, and then maybe seek something at the university level. My pay bump for the advanced degree was, in fact, quite good.

The summer of 2002 was not something I planned, but when a position opened at a nearby university (a position held by my former high school teacher and mentor), I applied with no real expectations about making the transition so soon.

After a flurry of on-campus interviewing, and then a disheartening negotiation about salary (the opening offer was a $17,500 pay cut), I agreed to leave my high school job for higher education. The final pay was still $6000 below my public school salary, but the university promised I would have overloads and summer work to make up the difference.

So I sit here this summer about to start my 17th year as a college professor, a full professor with tenure. I have learned a great deal.

First, the prestige and respect shift from K-12 teaching to higher education was stunning, especially since I taught high school for 4 years while I had a doctorate; the degree was not the key factor in how people viewed and treated me.

Professors receive immediate respect and assumptions about our expertise that K-12 teachers never experience. My ability to publish, for example, in local, state, and national newspaper magically appeared once I could list my university instead if my high school when querying.

Next, and related, that respect divide cannot be disassociated from the impact of gender: More than 3 of 4 K-12 teachers are women, but the largest group of professors is men, and that imbalance is even greater at the higher ranks, where men are the majority. The university where I teach, for example, is well over 60% male faculty.

Possibly the greatest differences, however, between K-12 teaching and being a professor are expectations for labor and what counts as your professional obligations.

By the time I left K-12 teaching, I was wearing a wrist brace; my right hand was nearly immobile from marking essays, and to be honest, teaching English as I knew I should [1] was nearly unmanageable against the rest of my responsibilities and having a family or any sort of recreational life.

Burn out is a common term associated with K-12 teaching, but since teaching doesn’t appear to be manual labor (such as construction) or isn’t associated with production (most of us balk at seeing our students as widgets), those who have not taught fail to recognize the physical and psychological wear that comes with teaching.

I joke, though it isn’t funny, that being stared at by 100 or so students per day is stunningly exhausting. But most K-12 teachers have no real time to eat alone (or with only other adults), to go to the restroom, or to do with their work day anything other than grade, respond to student work, plan, or address the never-ending minutia of bureaucracy that is teaching (standards, meetings, paperwork, etc.).

Teaching—even just lasting past the first 3-5 years—two or three decades is a herculean task in surviving a career; too many teachers out of self-preservation learn to work in auto-mode, mailing in a profession because it has simply erased your humanity.

Along with professional respect, I gained a great deal of professional autonomy (which K-12 teachers have almost none) and, most of all, time. A heavy semester for me is teaching several courses three days a week, usually M, W, F and from about early morning to mid-afternoon.

Except for meetings (and higher education has an ugly committee and departmental meetings problem), I have multiple days a week to devote to my professional commitments other than teaching, for me, being a writer.

And as a professor, I have never fretted about going to the bathroom, and making sure I eat, calmly, is nearly never a struggle.

I also teach with almost no direct evaluative surveillance or oversight (which can be a bad thing, of course); this I note because it reduces the unnecessary stress of teaching in a high-stakes accountability environment that allows you no professional autonomy (what it means to be a K-12 teacher).

I must stress that a great deal of pettiness and an inordinate amount of unhealthy practices still plague higher education—the tenure and promotion process along with the faculty evaluation process are steeped in sexism and inequity, for example.

And the cancer that is high-stakes accountability and reducing education to work-preparation is creeping, no galloping, toward and eventually over higher education.

When I first took my university position, I was surprised at how out of touch professors were with K-12 teaching and the negative impact of the standards and high-stakes testing movement. I, in fact, warned my colleagues that the accountability movement would some day come to colleges and universities so it was in their own self-interest to begin fighting the movement in K-12 schools.

But they didn’t listen.

Higher education isn’t called the Ivory Tower for nothing.

So this brings me to why anyone would be an educator—especially in 2018 when the consequences weighed against the rewards for being a K-12 teacher or a college professor are tipping mightily in the wrong direction.

To teach, at any level, for many of us is something like a calling. Just as one day in my first year of college I recognized I am a writer (I did not choose that), I know myself to be a teacher.

Despite my introversion, and my discomfort with people, crowds, I am never more relaxed than in a classroom with students. We are there with common purpose and we mostly are seeking ways to be a community.

These are things I believe in, things I trust about the possibility of humans being better than we have been so far.

To be an educator, then, is not the problem in that the profession itself, whether K-12 or in higher education, is compelling and deeply fulfilling.

The problem is that to be a teacher in the U.S. is colored by the cultural negative attitude toward labor, being a worker, and the power of collective workers against the wishes of corporatism.

Teaching at all levels has continually been corrupted by the urge to reduce public institutions to private entities driven by corporate paradigms.

K-12 teachers have always worked in environments that isolate us, overwork us so that we cannot resist, and have gradually become less and less unionized. Much of higher education (because of the tenure and promotion process as well as departmental politics) has also allowed competition to trump collaboration.

It is not so much why anyone would be an educator, but why those of us who teach at any level have allowed our profession to be dismantled, devalued, and dehumanizing.

And finally, teachers and professors are regularly policed for being political, admonished for being activists. And to that we must ask, in whose interest is this political call for teachers and professors to not be political?

Isolated, silenced, and depoliticized, we educators are failing a profession that deserves better.

In solidarity, raising our voices, and actively exercising our politics, we educators can resurrect one of the most valuable acts of labor humans can embrace.

The latter is why anyone would be an educator.


[1] The martyr/missionary dilemma.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

Does Your Academic Institution Value Diversity, Equity? (Probably Not)

Several years ago, my university was forced to acknowledge it has a gender problem. As a selective liberal arts university, the institution had already begun addressing its race and diversity problems among students admitted and faculty hired.

Two gender concerns could not be ignored: Women were paid less than men at the same ranks, and faculty attrition was overwhelmingly among women professors, who constitute only about 30% of the faculty.

A gender equity study was commissioned, but when the report was issued, a group of male faculty circulated an open letter challenging the methodology of the report, raising concerns about a lack of empirical data and expressing the need for quantitative versus qualitative methods.

This response certainly had an image problem—white male faculty calling into question a gender equity study—and the concerned faculty did eventually withdraw the letter in deference to the good of the university community.

However, this study and the response illustrate a serious problem in academia, the pervasive power of traditional structures (expectations about what data matter, what types of research matter, and a lingering argument that objectivity can be achieved) to serve as a veneer for entrenched, and thus rendered invisible, sexism, racism, and classism.

A parallel example is when my university seeks to increase the diversity of the faculty, that effort is always contested with “Let’s just hire the best candidate,” again often voiced by white male faculty [1].

“Best,” of course, like quantitative methods and empirical data is a veneer for the embedded biases that have been normalized (and thus seemingly invisible to the power structure itself and those who benefit from the bias).

White and male privilege, then, are institutionalized in higher education (see here and here for ways those privileges exist, again, invisibly to white men). Despite the popular claim that higher education is some liberal indoctrination factory, higher education is incredibly traditional and conservative at its core; only the edges appear liberal.

But, I can feel many wanting to interject, how can calling for high-quality research to address gender equity on campus and expecting candidates for open faculty positions to be the best constitute flawed practices in academia?

Let me often another example, one that calls into question the grounding of those arguments themselves, the claims of fidelity to high standards.

Another traditional practice in higher education is the use of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SET), feedback gathered from students and then used in various ways to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion.

Notably, a significant body of research [2] has revealed that SET lack validity and negatively impact women, faculty of color, and international faculty (in the U.S.).

Concurrently, the use of SET positively impact the existing and skewed white male faculty at most universities, who disproportionately dominate higher ranks and salaries.

Guess what happens when concerns are raised about SET based on high-quality empirical data and quantitative studies? The same faculty crying foul over gender equity reports and hiring practices toss up their hands and say, “O, well, we have to have something.”

As Colleen Flaherty explains:

While some institutions have acknowledged the biases inherent in SETs, many cling to them as a primary teaching evaluation tool because they’re easy — almost irresistibly so. That is, it takes a few minutes to look at professors’ student ratings on, say, a 1-5 scale, and label them strong or weak teachers. It takes hours to visit their classrooms and read over their syllabi to get a more nuanced, and ultimately more accurate, picture.

For example, my university’s self-evaluation form and the connected chair evaluation directly instructs in the teaching evaluation section: “Give particular emphasis to evidence of teaching quality, which could include numerical results from student opinion survey forms, written comments from student opinion survey forms, and comments from faculty or other consultants visiting your classes.”

“Evidence” is bolded and then the first example is “numerical results from student opinion survey forms.” There are clear biases here that privilege an instrument invalidated by a body of high-quality research—exactly what some faculty deemed missing in our gender equity study.

Junior faculty explain, often in private, that they are aware numerical data from the SET are the most important element of their case for tenure and promotion. As well, our Faculty Status Committee has provided workshops directly detailing which data from those forms are most influential, providing, as the committee claims, ways to distinguish faculty from each other.

Virtually every college and university has a diversity and equity statement and a perpetual formation and reformation of diversity and equity committees.

No statement or committee can make existing institutional sexism, racism, and classism disappear—especially if those words and that work are forced to work within existing biased structures.

“Research is reviewed in a rigorous manner, by expert peers,” writes Flaherty. “Yet teaching is often reviewed only or mostly by pedagogical non-experts: students. There’s also mounting evidence of bias in student evaluations of teaching, or SETs — against female and minority instructors in particular. And teacher ratings aren’t necessarily correlated with learning outcomes.

As long as calls for “high-quality” and “best” to guide policies and practices remain selective—and clearly in the service of the existing inequities and lack of diversity—we must admit the real commitment is not to”high-quality” or “best,” but to the status quo.

While not the only litmus test, a powerful way to determine if your academic institution values diversity and equity is if it continues to implement SET. Almost all do, so the answer remains, probably not.

See Also

Is Your University Racist? Bedelia Nicola Richards


[1] See how “merit” can work in the service of privilege in this reconsideration on Jordan Peterson:

I met Jordan Peterson when he came to the University of Toronto to be interviewed for an assistant professorship in the department of psychology. His CV was impeccable, with terrific references and a pedigree that included a PhD from McGill and a five-year stint at Harvard as an assistant professor.

We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.

[2] See:

28 November 2017 Education Reader

I am the teacher South Carolina wants to retain, and I am barely hanging on, Rachel Caulder

Teachers need autonomy. Thankfully, I teach in a school that does not use curriculum alignment documents or strict pacing guides, and my administration values the judgment of teachers within our classrooms. Teachers in districts that are solely focused on numbers are restricted, and students suffer because no allowance is made for differentiation or reteaching for content-mastery. In districts with strict pacing guides, teachers are left with no option but to stay the course — even when they know they are failing their students.

Why do schools use grades that teach nothing? Jonathan Lash

At the college where I serve as president, we do evaluate student work; we just use a higher-quality method. Our students receive written evaluations not only on every assignment, but also for every course and learning activity. These evaluations are designed to be formative teaching tools.

For similar reasons, we completely stopped accepting SAT and ACT for admissions two years ago, after an internal study revealed standardized test scores are poor predictors of student success at Hampshire. We also recognized the bias of standardized tests against low-income students, and the negative influence of standardized testing on education.

A North Carolina Teacher’s Guest Post on His/Her EVAAS Scores

NEPC Review: Tackling Gaps in Access to Strong Teachers: What State Leaders Can Do (The Education Trust, October 2017)

The Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) directs states and districts to identify equity gaps in students’ access to excellent educators and transformative school leaders. States are encouraged to use Title II funds strategically in order to identify and remedy these gaps. A new report from The Education Trust draws on ESSA documents and state teacher equity plans to provide guidance to state leaders, including some sound advice—but with significant omissions. The report does not engage with thorny issues around alternative pathways into teaching, and it largely skirts issues around incentives for supporting teacher recruitment and retention in hard-to-staff schools. The report also does not consider what attracts teachers into the profession and into particular school environments. Likewise, the report fails to draw on the explicit remedies sought by ESSA to link high-quality leadership with strong teacher recruitment and retention. Instead, the report casts the teacher equity problem primarily in terms of labor supply shortages and treats teachers like interchangeable widgets. Relying heavily on advocacy sources, it misses an opportunity to unpack the root causes of the teacher retention problem, particularly the corrosive impact of past federal and state policies on the teaching profession. The report does not help state leaders understand how they might build incentives and cultures that draw strong teachers into high-need schools, and they will thus be left with an incomplete and insufficient set of tools for ensuring that all students have equitable access to excellent educators.

Go public and perish? Supporting the engaged scholar, Jennifer Ditchburn

Despite the fact that university presidents and the people who run university communication departments are only too happy to have their scholars out building a profile, the academic system is not set up to help them connect with the public. Writing a piece for Maclean’s or appearing on CBC’s The National doesn’t count toward tenure or get you a promotion: publish or perish is about peer-reviewed journals and books.

Time for public engagement is not often budgeted into a professor’s employment – scholars do this on top of their personal and academic responsibilities (I always feel a bit sheepish when I approach a busy prof to write something for me). The challenges are arguably tougher for some women in academia, whose pursuit of tenure or awards is already interrupted by maternity leave or childcare responsibilities.

The Missing Link In Student Writing

Don’t Buy Bluster from Teacher Quality VAM-pires

The responses are predictable online and through social media any time I address teacher quality and policy focusing on teacher evaluation such as my recent commentary on Charleston adopting value-added methods (VAM).

How dare I, some respond, suggest that teacher quality does not matter!

The pattern is exhausting because most responding in indignation first misrepresent what I have claimed and then make the most extreme arguments themselves in order to derail the conversation along their own agenda, usually linked to the charter school movement grounded in teacher bashing and making unobtainable promises.

So let me state here that the central elements of what we know about teacher quality and efforts such as VAM-based teacher evaluation is that teacher quality is not an independent variable (any teacher may be effective for one student and ineffective for another, for example) and, since student high-stakes testing is not designed to measure teacher quality and is more strongly linked to out-of-school factors, VAM is both a horrible technique for identifying teacher quality and, ironically, a guaranteed process for devaluing the importance of teachers.

Teacher quality is unparalleled in importance in terms of student learning, but it is also nearly impossible to measure, quantify—especially through student scores on high-stakes standardized tests.

Teacher quality VAM-pires, then, often have agendas [1] that are masked by their bluster about teacher quality.

Trying to measure and quantify teacher quality is a mistake; linking any evaluation of teacher quality to student test scores lacks validity and reliability—and VAM discourages teachers from teaching the most challenging populations of students (high-poverty, special needs, English language learners).

Focusing on simplistic and inappropriate measures reduces teacher impact to 10-15% of what high-stakes standardized testing measures; in other words, VAM itself devalues teacher quality.

My informed argument, based on 18 years as a public school classroom teacher and 15 years as a teacher educator and scholar, then, is that we must recognize teacher quality is impacted by teacher preparation, teaching/learning conditions, student characteristics, and dozens of other factors inside and outside of schools—many of which are beyond the control of teachers or students.

As well, we must address the teacher quality issues that political and administrative leaders can control: class size, school funding, and most important of all, teacher assignment.

Just as decades of research have revealed that teacher quality accounts for no more than 10-15% of student test scores, decades of research show that affluent and white students are assigned the most experienced and certified teachers while poor and black/brown students are assigned new/inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers.

The charter school crowd’s bluster about teacher quality is pure hokum because charter schools increase that inequity of teacher assignment by depending on new and uncertified teachers such as candidates from Teach For America.

No one is saying teacher quality does not matter—I clearly am not saying that—but dishonesty about teacher quality does lay at the feet of the edu-reformers and the VAM-pires who wave their collective arms any time we call them on their failed policies and their political agendas.


[1] See the evangelical urge of Broad-trained acolytes, the resume building and cut-and-run patterns of edu-reformers, and the post-truth practices of turn-around and charter advocacy.