It seems so simple and fair. Because teachers are hired to teach, let's evaluate them on the basis of student performance. After all, employees in other fields are rated on their ability to perform their designated tasks. When teachers resist being similarly judged, therefore, they clearly are trying to evade accountability.
At least that's the common perception in the debate over the U.S. Department of Education's $4-billion "Race to the Top" fund. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state's Legislature are weighing whether to change a 2006 law to allow this performance/evaluation linkage so the state can qualify for some of this money.
But before jumping to conclusions, taxpayers need to read the fine print that lays out the rules for the distribution of these funds in what is the federal government's greatest involvement in education reform in our history. To be labeled effective, teachers have to demonstrate that their students achieve "acceptable rates" of growth in an academic year.
It's precisely in the 5,000 chronically failing public schools targeted by the initiative that this particular mandate needs to be debated most openly. These schools are almost always located in inner cities and in rural areas. They are overwhelmingly populated by poor students who come from chaotic backgrounds.
When teachers inherit classroom after classroom of these students year after year, it's extremely difficult to focus on instruction. That's because of the powerful effect of out-of-school factors on learning. Too many poor students go to school each day without a nutritious breakfast, without sufficient sleep and without parents who are involved in their education. As a result, teachers are forced to perform triage rather than teach.
This bleak situation has long existed, but the recession has increased the number of students who are homeless and who have lost access to health care. About 1.6 million people, including 340,000 children, were homeless across the nation before the recession began, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. With unemployment on the rise, the situation will only get worse.
This outlook directly affects learning because the rate at which people move from place to place causes problems similar to those created by non-attendance. In 2008, about 6.5 percent of all children lived in their current residence for fewer than six months. For poor children, however, the rate was 10 percent, according to the Partnership for America's Economic Success.
It's not surprising, therefore, that most teachers are vehemently opposed to the demands of Race to the Top to link their evaluations to progress on standardized test scores, which in turn forms the basis for determining if students have advanced one grade level per school year.
Some argue that this position is merely an excuse. They cite the examples of schools that serve large numbers of students who qualify for free lunches because of their parents' income and yet have boosted standardized test scores. If they can do it, why can't all schools follow suit?
These schools certainly deserve high praise. But their success is neither sustainable nor achievable for the nation's 90,000 public schools serving 50 million students.
Heroic efforts extract too steep a price from teachers to form the basis of education reform. This is seen in the burnout in schools with a disproportionate number of needy students. At the Knowledge Is Power Program schools, for example, teachers are expected to teach every other Saturday and for three weeks during the summer in addition to their typical 10-hour days. How long can they maintain this schedule?
The potential for high teacher turnover already exists in public schools. Each year, U.S. school districts hire more than 200,000 new teachers for the first day of class. But by the time summer rolls around, 22,000 have quit, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
For students attending the failing schools that are the principal focus of Race to the Top, even the best of the nation's teachers will not be able to overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development they bring to class through no fault of their own.
The sooner we disabuse ourselves of the notion that teachers are miracle workers, the sooner we can address the fundamental causes of student failure.
Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the University of California, Los Angeles' Graduate School of Education.