Debate: Is There a War on Teachers?

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 24, 2016

This week, the Green & Write Blog is examining the claim that there is a war on teachers. Many have argued that teachers are under attack due to the increasing focus on evaluation based on student test scores, yet others claim that teachers are overcompensated and those who are ineffective at their jobs are sheltered by unions. The following debate represents both sides of this issue. The views expressed in this article are not the personal opinions of Green & Write authors or Michigan State University.

Should Teachers Be Evaluated Based on Achievement Test Scores?

Photo courtesy of Spencer Tweedy

Photo courtesy of Spencer Tweedy

Side A: Absolutely. Teachers are responsible for student learning and student learning is measured through test score growth. The same logic can be applied to nearly every other profession. Attorneys are responsible for effectively representing their clients and if they fail to do so, they face disbarment. Sales representatives are expected to make sales goals and if they fall short, they are fired. While some may argue that test scores are not a true measure of student learning, research has repeatedly demonstrated that there are long-term benefits to being taught by a teacher that produces high test scores. Researchers found that the impact of a teacher, whether positive or negative can be detected years later. Furthermore, a 2014 study found that when students are taught by teachers who show high test score growth, they are more likely to attend college, earn more money as adults, and less likely to become teen parents. It is only logical that we evaluate teachers based on whether or not they produce results in the form of test scores. Ineffective teachers should not be teaching students when there is so much to lose.

Side B: Absolutely not. Heavily relying on Value-Added Model (VAM) scores in evaluations over-simplifies an extremely complex set of desired outcomes and incentivizes prioritizing test scores over less measurable, yet equally vital goals of teaching. In many cases, high-stakes testing forces educators to narrow the curriculum, and untested subjects get cut simply because of the pressure for teachers to raise student test scores. Yes, teachers should be held accountable for their work, but testing is not an accurate way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher. Administrators hold teachers accountable based on observations of the myriad interactions that make up a successful lesson. Parents and students hold teachers accountable by monitoring their children’s work and expressing concerns. Teachers should have the freedom to focus on their craft rather than teaching to the small amount of learning that is actually measurable by standardized tests.

Are Teachers Overpaid?

 Side A: Yes, some teachers are overpaid. We currently pay most teachers using an antiquated system based on number of years of service and whether or not they hold advanced degrees, even though these things don’t exactly relate to student outcomes. After the first 3-5 years of experience, teachers’ performance tends to plateau, yet we still continue to award them with annual raises even though their performance has not changed. New York City continues to provide pay increases until teachers have put in 22 years with the district and Houston’s salary schedule maxes out at 35 years. It turns out that earning a master’s degree does not improve student achievement, yet districts typically pay teachers more for having one. In 2012-13, for example, Detroit Public Schools paid an extra $9,166 per year to teachers with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience as compared to their colleagues with the same amount of experience and only a bachelor’s degree. We should not be awarding teachers for reasons completely unrelated to student achievement.

Side B: No. There is an alarming teacher shortage in this country, which disproportionately affects low-income rural and inner-city students. Talented college students are attracted to jobs other than teaching because of the potential for greater lifetime income. Teaching salaries should reward young people for choosing the profession, and combat workforce atrophy by rewarding those who stay with the profession beyond the first few years. Moreover, some argue that teachers’ salary should be tied to student achievement. However, studies have shown that linking individual teacher salaries to student performance has no observable effect on test scores.

Are Teachers’ Unions Actually to Blame?

 Side A: Yes. If anyone is waging war against teachers, it is teachers’ unions. They don’t have teachers’ (or students’) best interests at heart. In his book, The War Against Hope, former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige explains that unions do not support incentive pay or any sort of salary schedule that rewards teachers for performance rather than seniority. He also cites corrupt union leaders, such as Barbara Bullock of the Washington DC Teachers Union and Pat Tornillo of the United Teachers of Dade, who inappropriately spent funds that came from teachers’ paychecks. Teachers’ unions often demand that districts make layoff decisions based on seniority rather than effectiveness. Union contracts also limit teachers from going above and beyond. For example, a teacher may be prevented by his or her contract from attending activities outside of school hours.

Side B: No. Unions protect both teachers and students. Recent protests in Chicago and Detroit were aimed at building conditions and staffing concerns that interfere with learning, and unions protect teachers’ ability to bring these issues to the attention of the authorities and the public. Advocating for acceptable working conditions is necessary for attracting a diverse teacher workforce, which is badly needed in the United States. Moreover, recent research has found that there is no negative association between strong unions and student achievement, regardless of the demographic of the school community. Unions do not interfere with student learning, they protect teachers’ ability to serve students well.

Closing Remarks

 Side A: There is no war on teachers. While teachers’ unions may be funneling hard-earned money away from teachers, preventing them from excelling at their work, and failing to reward excellent teaching, there is no evidence that teachers are being unfairly evaluated, paid too little, or that their profession is under attack. While the teaching profession is undoubtedly difficult work, this is not an excuse for teachers to avoid taking responsibility for their students’ learning or to claim that they ought to be paid extra for experience and master’s degrees, when there is no evidence that either of these lead to better teaching. It’s time to do away with teachers’ unions, start holding teachers responsible for student learning, and compensate them according to their performance.

Side B: Teachers have been wrongly blamed for the failings of the American education system and the systemic poverty and racism from which these failings originate. Twenty years of attempting to use test scores to hold teachers accountable for work that they are already doing with passion and commitment has yielded nothing but mass anxiety over testing and an overall contempt for the teaching profession. In order to attract and retain a vibrant, talented generation of teachers, we need to stop assuming the worst of the educators in our country’s classrooms and begin treating them as the committed professionals they are.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.