Education Matters: Efficiency is only skin deep

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

There is a memorable character from the movie "Teachers," Mr. Ditto, who reminds me of a few teachers I had in school and, I must add, a few I have known over the years as colleagues.

In the movie this fellow got his name by starting each and every class by having designated students distribute the day's handout while he sat at his desk with a newspaper propped up in front of him. At the end of the class all papers were collected by a student and placed on the desk of the teacher, who still had his face buried in the newspaper.

At the end of the movie, Mr. Ditto has a heart attack and dies at his desk with his newspaper still propped up, and the students throughout the day, following their routine, were unaware of their teacher's demise.

Aside from the dark humor in this depiction was a painful reality that there are some very, very bad teachers in our system of education. The point was made, however exaggerated, that in the end, the students were as completely oblivious to Mr. Ditto as he had been to them.

I'm sure that most of you reading this can recall some lousy teachers you had in the course of your education. The question of what constitutes good and bad teachers has received a good deal of attention lately in our nation, more so than any time that I can recall in my career.

The questions being asked are not new, but the answers get a little tricky: How to assess teachers? How to remove the bad ones, how to reward the good ones, and who should be given the power to do either?

Tenure for teachers is also coming under greater scrutiny, with proponents seeing it as necessary job protection and critics charging that it makes it impossible to get rid of bad teachers.

Assessment of teachers is increasingly being based on standardized test scores, and that has indeed stirred the pot of controversy in and out of schools. The L.A. Times' decision to publish teacher scores and then rank their effectiveness accordingly, with New York schools now following suit and other states looking to do the same, is, to say the least, an ominous trend.

There are a number of reasons why most teachers are against this that have nothing to do with their apprehension of being outed as a bad teacher.

Just to illustrate one of those reasons, let's consider Teacher X and Teacher Y. Teacher X bases her entire instruction on drilling the standards into the brains of her students. She teaches social studies and displays all 150 of the standards around the room. Virtually all of her time is spent on rote drills and test preparation, and when the week of state exams arrives, her students outperform Teacher Y, who spends most of his time trying to get his kids to think critically and delve more deeply into the subject matter.

Teacher X is acclaimed as "highly effective," and Teacher Y is judged "less effective."

A few months after the exam, the students in Teacher X's class have forgotten 95% of everything they were taught, an understandable consequence of rote learning, while the students in Teacher Y's class were curious to know more, and their retention was far greater. But guess which teacher will be held up as an exemplary model and likely be conducting seminars and in-services. Guess which one will be asked to change his ways.

The Mr. Dittos of my profession are far and few between, but they do exist. To the extent that they are protected by tenure and supported by teachers unions, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. We need a fair and expedient process for terminating teachers who are clearly ineffective. But crunching test scores is only a tiny bit of the picture and likely a misleading one at that.

Most teachers I've known are not afraid of authentic evaluation and welcome suggestions for improvement, but make no mistake, teachers are evaluated every day by about 150 students whose special needs and various learning abilities go well beyond content areas and curriculums to tax teachers' skills in ways that are not measured by standardized test scores.

If the singular goal of public education is building perfect test scores, I can foresee the day that we teachers become obsolete altogether and are replaced by more efficient dispensers of education. They will be more knowledgeable, will adhere perfectly to centralized mandates and will deliver consistent, on-task, pre-programmed lessons to their students. They will require no salary or medical benefits, they won't form unions, and there will be no need to worry about their individuality or personal style getting in the way of inculcating standards.

The circuit boards and computer chips and video screens that now play a supporting role in education may indeed take the lead in the not-too-distant future, whereupon our children will be more efficiently standardized and programmed, and in the end, resembling more and more their "highly efficient" new teachers.

DAN KIMBER taught in the Glendale Unified School District for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@sbcglobal.net.

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FOR THE RECORD: A sentence in this piece was plagiarized from a Sept. 1, 2010 article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Teachers comment on the their value-added evaluations.” The comment was originally made by Shalonda Elaine Proctor. 

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