Sitting at the kitchen table the other morning, sipping steaming hot coffee from my Grumpy cup before heading upstairs to take a shower, I picked up my iPad to peruse the morning headlines on Yahoo. Usually I don't go much further than the headline itself, but one caught my eye and demanded that I click on it and read the actual article for once. The title was "A Yelp for Teachers," written by Matt Bai. You can read the article for yourself here.
I really should have known better. You can't turn around these days without being slapped in the face with an article bemoaning the state of education and if we could just get these darned teachers to do a better job, then all would be right with the world. I should have stopped at the first "accountability" (it was the tenth word in), but I didn't. I kept reading. I felt my blood pressure rising and I still kept going. Partly because I was intrigued to see how Yelp was going to fix the evils of our educational system and partly because I don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction to every article on teaching that prevents me from objectively evaluating others' points of view.
Bai begins by pointing out that many teachers are being rated based on students' test scores, but that districts are reticent to reveal these ratings to the public and unions are actively fighting to keep them "secret." Bai admits midway through his article that these ratings "may be incomplete or flawed," but contends that they should be used anyway because of a "massive cultural shift that is reaching into every corner of the society." Basically, it may be worthless data, but everyone else is doing it so education should too. He then moves onto the argument of "teachers are public employees, and so, technically speaking, they work for us." Therefore, "we have a right to know if students are learning the relevant material or not." Of course, he fails to mention that the
ones who really need to know if students are learning the relevant
material or not, students and their parents, do know.
Unfortunately, Bai also does not explore what "relevant material" really means and who gets to determine its relevancy. I would assume, although he does not name them outright, that he means Common Core Standards, yet there are many, including highly regarded experts in the field of education, who would argue that some of those standards are not particularly relevant for the grades in which they are taught.
Putting all question of relevancy aside, what if students are not learning the material? Given the complexity of human beings, can we draw a clear line from student "failure" to teaching failure? If a child does not do well on the PARCC or SBAC tests, does that necessarily mean that the teacher is to blame? There are so many factors that play a role in a child's learning, it would be hard to delineate a clear cause and effect relationship. Teaching does not occur in a vacuum and our students are not empty vessels waiting passively to be filled with knowledge. I sometimes wonder if those who only write about education forget that our students are in fact human beings, complete with emotions, experiences, personalities, and home lives over which we have no control. We don't teach theoretical children, we teach real ones.
It is at this point that Matt Bai suggests that parents should have a forum for providing "consumer feedback." Before mentioning Yelp, he refers to Consumer Reports as the way in which consumers back in the dark ages of the 80's were able to find out "whether most people liked the products they paid for." While Consumer Reports does provide ratings based on customer satisfaction, they also develop standards and do their own testing. Their recommendations aren't simply based on consumer opinion. I'd like to point out, too, that these ratings are of products, not people. We're educating children here, not building refrigerators. Please don't suggest it's the same.
Bai states that a platform like Yelp would be useful because parents "know better than anyone else" what teachers are like. Teachers should welcome such evaluations because they would give "the small minority of teachers who fall behind some useful feedback on what's not working and some genuine incentive to fix it."
What is particularly interesting about this idea is that if you Google Yelp, you will find numerous articles detailing the problems with the review site. Is it any wonder? The reviews are based on opinion. It would appear that many are no longer able to distinguish between the two, accepting opinion as fact. Let's face it: some people are going to like you and some aren't. How they review you will be based on those feelings and their own personal criteria. Jim Handy, a contributor to Forbes, wrote in August of 2012, of his experience writing a review for Yelp. He had used the services of a company recommended by a friend. His experiences with the company prompted him to write a favorable review. The company only had "one Yelp review at the time, and it was scathing." Two people apparently had extremely different experiences with the same company. Is one right and the other wrong? With two such opposing viewpoints, what "useful feedback" did the company receive? How will they know what to "fix"? As a potential consumer, how do you know which review to trust?
In a 2011 article on Huffington Post, "Yelp Review Problems: Top 9 Reasons You Can't Always Trust the Review Site," one of the problems they mention is that people are likely to review "if they have very good or very bad experiences, making it hard to trust any given review." Very few people actually take the time to write reviews. Think of all the times you have been directed to participate in a survey after shopping at a store or dining at a restaurant. How many of those did you actually complete? Chances are you weren't unhappy with your experience and would be perfectly willing to go back to those places, even though you didn't spend the time rating the experience. It seems like this would be the case with parents reviewing teachers as well.
I know of a teacher who had a parent who was constantly complaining. This teacher couldn't do anything right in the parent's eyes. Much of what the parent thought was based on misleading information received from the child. What kind of review do you think that parent would write? Would this be an honest and accurate assessment of this teacher's ability? Yet, according to Matt Bai, parents "know better than anyone else," even if they aren't present in the classroom. As a parent myself, there are some things my children's teachers have done that I could conceivably complain about or write a bad review based on. Fortunately, I know better. I am not in the classroom every day. I am not privy to the whole picture. I also know that my child's perception isn't always 100% accurate. If there is a concern, I am not going to head to my computer. I am going to speak directly to the teacher. This seems like a much more honest and humane approach. Gossiping behind her back and tarnishing her reputation would benefit no one.
The Huffington Post article also points out that "People do all sorts of weird things when they know they're unidentifiable - which can throw off the average on sites like Yelp, which rely on the forthrightness and honesty of strangers." Would we really want to evaluate people based on a system such as this? What would be next? Yelp for Friends? Yelp for Husbands and Wives?
I'm not arguing that evaluations aren't needed. Certainly they are. I just believe that there is so much involved in teaching that trying to reduce it to numbers or relying on opinions isn't the way to go. We need to do better than that.
I suppose in Matt Bai's eyes I am just one of the "reflexive defenders of the status quo who will read this and brand it as just another form of teacher bashing, which is how they dismiss all talk of modernization." Although with all the technology I am learning about and incorporating into my classroom and the Common Core Standards that I address on a daily basis, I don't feel like I am fighting modernization. Perhaps I just have a better understanding of the complexity of teaching real students in the modern world. Students who laugh, cry, think, and feel. Students who have needs beyond a set of standards. Students who have challenges that they strive to overcome every day.
The very students who seem to be conspicuously missing from Matt Bai's article.
His parting shot is this: "Shouldn't we teach to the parents at least as much as we teach to the test?" Perhaps. But most teachers I know are teaching the kids.