It turns out that Houston has a bit of a controversy going on in terms of how they evaluate teachers. The school board there was set to vote on a plan to evaluate teachers based on the Texas high stakes testing results. Teachers who aren't doing well may even be fired. Naturally, this has got some people overjoyed and others less so. It does raise - for me anyway - one issue that I think is worth really delving into. (For the sake of argument, let's assume that standardized testing is a valid way to measure student learning. Obviously there are pros and cons to the approach, but let's put those aside for this post.)
The president of the teachers' union there is quoted as saying, "There are so many factors that influence scores — school climate and leadership, not to mention how students woke up feeling on test day." Let's throw into that hopper things like socioeconomic status, nutrition, health and dental care, and more. I think most everyone would agree that kids don't walk into classrooms as blank slates ready to take in whatever the teacher throws at them. Rather, there are all sorts of things both in and out of school that have an impact on student learning. We know that. So let's take it to the next step.
Who has ultimate responsibility for ensuring that kids are learning?
If the school board approves this measure, they are saying it's the teachers. The teachers' union is saying that the principal and outside factors (like parents) also have some responsibility. All of the arguments have some validity. However, if we accept all of them, then who do we blame when things go wrong or praise when they go right? Can we take children away from their parents if their test scores aren't improving?
If we go down that road, we get into accountability nihlism and that's not ultimately going to help us very much. So then where does the responsibility lie?
In the end, I think we have to answer the question by saying that it's the schools. We can and should do everything we can to improve the living conditions for children in underserved communities to help on that front. We can and should provide as much support for parents as possible to help them raise their children so that they'll be able to succeed in school and in life. We can and should do a whole host of things to help the kids who need it most. But in the end, it's the school's job to educate kids and the buck needs to stop there - fairly or unfairly.
Should we fire teachers because of poor student performance? Not as a first line of defense, but it should probably be an option. As long as our goal is to improve schools first, I think we'll see much less need to punish them.