Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 03/15/2010

On Obama (and Jay Mathews) and teacher accountability

By Valerie Strauss

Really now, does anybody think teachers should not be held accountable for how they do their jobs? What professionals are not evaluated on how well they do their jobs?

The real issues are inot whether, but how, the assessments are carried out, and how the results are used. And the way a lot of school "reformers" want to hold teachers supposedly accountable is wrong.

"Teacher accountability" is one of the central themes of President Obama’s new vision for the post-No Child Left Behind era, and that two-word term, unfortunately, has come to mean something it shouldn’t.

Today in the world of education the phrase has come to mean how well a teacher’s students perform on standardized tests. If the students do well, the teacher is considered excellent. If the students haven’t done well, the teacher is not excellent.

Here are just a few of the problems with this scheme:

If we had a test, standardized or not, that really was a complete measure of a teacher’s performance -- or a student’s, for that matter -- it would be hard to argue against its use.

But let’s be clear: We don’t. Our standardized tests are rudimentary assessments, still. They are nowhere near sophisticated enough -- if indeed any single test can be -- to be used as a real measure of performance.

Even if the test were an excellent assessment tool, some students will still wind up taking it sick, or hungry, or tired, or anxious, or depressed. What is a teacher supposed to do about that?

Another problem with basing teacher accountability on standardized test scores is that students don’t take annual assessments in many subjects. Is it fair to subject math and English/language arts teachers to this sort of accountability and not everybody else?

In her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” education historian Diane Ravitch discusses studies that evaluated whether teacher effectiveness, as measured by student test scores, is stable over time.

The conclusion was that “being an effective teacher is not necessarily a permanent, unchanging quality.” In other words, the New York University professor wrote, the scores “reflected something other than what the teachers did, such as the students’ ability and motivation, or the characteristics of a class or conditions in the school.”

Now my colleague Jay Mathews, in his Class Struggle blog, took me to task for opposing this part of Obama’s new vision for reauthorizing NCLB. Here’s what he wrote:

"For now, I think it is important to note that my colleague Valerie Strauss’s distress about the president’s emphasis on teachers improving student achievement harks back to an earlier era that will never return. It is politically impossible to pass a plan that doesn’t make teachers accountable for student performance. We will never return to the good old days (in the minds of some) when we ignored that factor. I agree with Valerie that there are better measures of schools, but for the moment they are way too expensive (like regular inspections) and way too complicated for voters to understand and trust."

I, of course, did not say that teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. But test scores do not make an evaluation system. There are multiple ways to measure how much progress students have made. They require time and effort.

To say that better measures of achievement are “too expensive ... and way too complicated for voters to understand and trust” is no reason to institute an accountability system that will never work.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | March 15, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  No Child Left Behind, Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  No Child Left Behind, President Obama  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Obama and NCLB: The good--and very bad--news
Next: Willingham on school choice


It’s further confirmation that people who say they care about educating children are really just satisfied to scapegoat teachers.

Secretary Duncan says, "I will tell you what doesn't work – “Doing nothing,” as he justifies firing all the teachers in Central Falls, RI. (i.e., We gotta do something, so let’s fire teachers.)

Chancellor Rhee says, “As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles…You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.” (i.e., Teachers who can’t perform miracles are bad teachers.)

And now Jay Mathews says, “It is politically impossible to pass a plan that doesn’t make teachers accountable for student performance.” (i.e., Voters will never understand, so let’s punish teachers.)

They’ve thrown up their hands in frustration. Instead of facing the difficult task of educating children who are most in need, they’ve actively or passively transferred the entire responsibility to teachers.

Posted by: efavorite | March 15, 2010 7:40 AM | Report abuse

“It is politically impossible to pass a plan that doesn’t make teachers accountable for student performance.”

Jay, Valerie, efavorite and I managed to be educated under such a system.

What happened?

Posted by: edlharris | March 15, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse


In an attempt to try to agree with you on something let's start with your opening salvo, "The real issues are not whether, but how, the assessments are carried out, and how the results are used." I'll agree with you the tests should be used with a grain of salt - to begin with. By that I mean let's not attach punitive consequences and make these high-stakes assessments, at least not initially. However, test scores must be employed as part of a multiple measure to determine whether teachers are getting the job done with their students or not. Whether the test count as 20% or 50% (probably somewhere in between) of a teacher's evaluation will be a collective bargaining decision in each separate school district. But the tests are going to have to be aggregated and counted toward a teacher's performance. THE EXISTING SYSTEM OF SUBJECTIVE ADMINISTRATIVE EVALUATIONS IS AN EMBARRASSMENT TO THE TEACHING PROFESSION and needs to be terminated ASAP.

One additional question requiring attention is the high-stakes situation mentioned above. Should these tests count toward determining tenure and/or dismissal of a teacher. My vote would say, initially: NO.

The tests results, at least initially should be used strictly to improve instruction. HOWEVER, if a teacher gets repeatedly poor test results from his/her students over time and displays an unwillingness or inability to amend their methods/practices, they should be counseled toward another profession and eventually terminated from teaching.

Posted by: phoss1 | March 15, 2010 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Here's something to consider:

Plenty of lousy teachers have students who score well on standardized tests. It doesn't take a great teacher to train kids to do well on them. And that's just what it is-it's TRAINING, not education.

It's possible for a child to ace the test without having ever read a book from cover to cover or without having produced a research paper. Great teachers understand the importance of these things they are unnecessary to do well on standardized tests.

It's one more very important reason not to tie teacher evaluation to standardized testing.

Posted by: aed3 | March 15, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Ever the optimist, I'm hoping that this Rovian plan, not only released as Bush's Brain released his memoir but also on the take out the trash time on Friday, is a sign that the Administration knows it is DOA.

Posted by: johnt4853 | March 15, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

edlharris - and plenty of private school kids are getting educated right now without such a system.

This is a political plan, not an educational plan.

Under the old system, the kids were held accountable for their grades, not the teachers. Parents were expected to be responsible and everyone knew, even way back then, that parents involvement in their kids' education made a big difference.

Posted by: efavorite | March 15, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

"However, test scores must be employed as part of a multiple measure to determine whether teachers are getting the job done with their students or not. "

Tests are meant to measure student knowledge - how they got that knowledge is much harder to measure and can't be measured simply by the tests kids take. Some kids learn faster, some kids already had a basis for the knowledge measured on the test (learned it at home, learned it last year), some kids weren't ready to take that course because or low reading levels, or whatever. The teacher is one element in the mix, just as the doctor is one element in a patient's health.

People understand this when it comes to medical care, but not when it comes to education.

Posted by: efavorite | March 15, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Reliance on test data is the refuge of those who don't understand how children learn.

Posted by: aed3 | March 15, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I'm just waiting for the day when politicians will have the political courage to tell parents and students what they need to hear: that the students are responsible for their grades-and the parents are responsiblie for raising their children and providing them with the security and discipline to achieve.

I'm not holding my breath. It's so much easier to pile on the teachers than it is to tell parents to do their job.

Posted by: sanderling5 | March 15, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Valerie! Of course there is no single test designed to measure the progress of each child in the class and the competence of the teacher. You seem to be the first journalist to realize this! Hooray!

Yes, a teacher should be accountable and she definitely CAN be evaluated, but there are no simple or inexpensive ways of doing it. An elementary teacher would have to have each of her students tested in the fall and then again in the spring. This evaluation would have to be done on an individual basis by an outside examiner (principal, psychologist, experienced teacher). The test would have to be individualized because many children, especially in urban schools, are outside the range of the grade-level test.

In addition to testing of students, the teacher would have to be observed by several administrators or teachers.

Everyone is looking for cheap shortcuts in education. Well, there aren't any.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 15, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

As important as it is to question whether test data can measure teacher performance, is the need to consider the collateral damage to education, learning, school climate, etc., that such a misguided one-dimensional approach has had. Each person who makes decisions about or statements about education should ask "is this making a better place for my own child?"
It is also important to consider how we got here. In the health care debate, the role of the insurance and pharmaceutical industry lobbies is well-known. In shaping education policy, the testing industry lobby is as influential. Maybe more so, because the education professionals have less control over their profession than medical professionals.

Posted by: psmyth20 | March 15, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

For all the educators, past/present/advocate

Please explain how and why a freshman in high school, is reading at elementary levels? How many classrooms did this child enter and leave with passing grades? Clearly, relying on quarterly report cards cannot be the only measure of educational assurances. The penitentiary system around the nation has exploded as a result prior to NCLB.

What are the solutions to assure as much as possible to END children passing year to year without assuring at least mastering basic skill sets?

How could this have ever happened in the 21st Century?

Enough of blaming parents for the original cause of No Child Left Behind implementation. We ARE their first teachers, but we do rely (and pay heavy taxes) toward Educators to provide instruction. Taxes pay for continued training, certfications (in some states) and classroom resources. Parents spend hundreds of dollars to provide school supplies before a child enters the classroom their first day of school. From soap, hand sanitizer, binders, trappers, notebooks, composition books, pencils, paper, erasers, calculators, tissues, bookbags, uniforms, the list goes on and all year round. That's just for classrooms. We spend fortunes on books and electronics as well. We do so willingly. But many would like to but cannot and why parents who can, must provide so much.

It's been many many years since I've been in school but do recall low income families as they've always existed. Students STILL learned to read and apply basic math skills to include workforce training while in secondary schools. Many have gone off to college and are successfully supporting their families.

It cost a heck of a lot less to educate a child then financially support them once they've entered the juvenile and more likely then on their horizon, adult penal system as well.

Children deserve the absolute BEST and effective efforts by all.

Posted by: TwoSons | March 15, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Your comments are best directed towards the administrators who run the system, set the passing requirements, and put subtle and not so subtle pressure on teachers not to fail students.

Posted by: edlharris | March 15, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Understood edlharris,

And I've asked these same questions toward administrators, teachers and Principals.

Response: We can only do what we can. By the time a student reaches HS and below grade level, all that can be done is hope that the student catches up because it's not an option for a student to go back or "do over" ES or MS. Intervention, that should have occured during primary years, just did'nt.

When individuals post "children don't want to learn" or "they're lazy because they're parents are lazy" what is not being considered is that they (students) may not be able to aborb what is being taught. Most if not many are not lazy, hopelessly unmotivated, hungry, sleepy, etc. All they need are people that care and let them know that they CAN become productive contributors to society.

I've worked with tons of kids that, in the beginning, were so very frustrated and embarrassed because they're so far behind. It took a great deal to break through a student's layer(s) of frustration because they've stopped trusting people years ago.

Many teachers gave up on these students and students, in turn, have lost faith in themselves while in classrooms. But once students receive that small glimmer of hope/confidence/pride about themselves, they become motivated to work harder and a truly remarkable difference in attitude about learning, in most instances, does eventually surface.

A child can sit in a classroom feeling that nobody cares. That's a very lonely place for a child to be; some act out and many just shut down. Sometimes what a child needs is somebody that will just listen to them but most of the time they are simply ignored.

Posted by: TwoSons | March 15, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

It's incredible that "intelligent" men like
Obama and Duncan are not understanding the
pressure cookers that public schools have become for teachers, and that the coerciveness and bullying aspects of their new plan are not likely to bring about the quality of education we would all like to see.

Also, to quote a teacher who spent 30+ years teaching against all odds in struggling inner city schools: "To blame the teachers/schools for students struggling is like blaming the doctors because the patients have cancer."

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 15, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

It's incredible that "intelligent" men like
Obama and Duncan are not understanding the
pressure cookers that public schools have become for teachers, and that the coerciveness and bullying aspects of their new plan are not likely to bring about the quality of education we would all like to see.

Also, to quote a teacher who spent 30+ years teaching against all odds in struggling inner city schools: "To blame the teachers/schools for students struggling is like blaming the doctors because the patients have cancer."

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 15, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Cancer is an incurable disease.

Teachers are not doctors and students are not malignant tumors.

Posted by: TwoSons | March 15, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Valerie is right: There's so much more to school/learning that NCLB is laughable. Except it's not funny, because this deficit approach to schooling is bringing nothing but narrower and narrower measures to a system that should be exploding its own paradigm and broadening its vision about what schools need to be NOW. Please look up Linda Darling-Hammond on and see her recent presentation about the gulf between NCLB testing and real assessment. If you want a thumbnail sketch, give a quick read to the left column in my recent newsletter at It's not accountability that's a problem but the shallow, numbers-driven attempt at "accountability" that has made us all cogs in a Rube Goldberg machine. Patricia Kokinos,

Posted by: changemkr | March 15, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Cancer is in some cases preventable based on lifestyle. It can also be highly treatable, based on the type of cancer and when it's discovered.

The outcome is based to some extent on innate human differences, to some extent on human motivation and to some extent on professional intervention.

Posted by: efavorite | March 16, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

We will never improve the schools until someone can explain what happened in my brain--and brains of my niece and nephew and several of my friends--when we taught ourselves to read at age 4. How can we expect to hold teachers accountable for teaching students to read when we don't know why some youngsters teach themselves before they ever start school and others never learn to read well until they are eight or so? The fact is that we simply don't understand the brain well enough to know how to teach. All we know is how not to teach; making fun of a student for not knowing something, pushing him along with his age group ragardless of his progress, telling a musically talented youngster that music is worth less to society than football,keeping very young children in their seats all day instead of sending them out for recess. We all know the damage this does--and yet the schools are expected to do all of it in the name of standardized tests.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 16, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

To two sons: I am sorry that you misunderstood the analogy, so I need to clarify: no, I was not trying to infer that students are malignant tumors - far from it! (and not all cancers are incurable for that matter). But like having cancer, many students in struggling schools carry incredible "baggage" - not their fault - that can interfere with their ability to learn. The teachers, like doctors trying to treat cancer,must try many different ways of trying to get through all of the baggage to reach the child. Sometimes, many times, it simply isn't possible for teachers to reach children if: the classes are too large, the resources are inadequate, advanced training isn't available, etc. etc. etc.

I guess my main concern is that Obama and Duncan not be punitive toward struggling schools when they are in desperate need of
(my "prescription")VERY small classes, tutors,large amounts of support for teachers in terms of interventions, resource help for students with learning disabilities and behavorial issues and for heaven's sake, some RESPECT for the job they are trying to do.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 16, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company