To the Editor:
When it comes to doing what’s right in education, the policies of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seem to be off the mark.
While we applaud Mr. Duncan for stressing the importance of analytical thinking and attempting to have schools address the skill to think scientifically, we are critical of his support of a policy that uses children’s test results as a way to demonstrate social equality—one that lacks empirical support. The policy ignores the fact that genuine social inequities emanate from the deleterious effects of poverty. Time and again, it has been shown that, as the poverty gap widens, so too does the decline in standardized test scores for the poor.
Mr. Duncan and his administration are calling for an increase in the number of new teachers to replace those who leave early in their careers. They seem to believe that higher salaries will entice new professionals into teaching.
This proposed policy avoids the core factor for teacher attrition. Salary is unmistakably not the main reason teachers leave since most, admirably so, commit to the profession to make a positive difference in children’s lives. Rather, we would argue that teacher burnout and eventual attrition are due to the punitive audit culture instituted by federal and state agencies that seem to have a perverse obsession with teacher accountability.
Accountability is indeed critical for the success of any system. However, accountability methodology has to be rational and scientific. Just as doctors are not rightfully accountable for patients not taking a prescribed medication, scapegoating teachers for poor student performance is devoid of any wisdom. A teacher can be as good as one can be, but if the student does not study and perform on the tests, that teacher should not be held responsible.
The implementation of punitive assessment measures cannot eliminate the disparity between the potential benefits that prosperity offers students and the lack of opportunity provided by deprivation.
Clearly, Mr. Duncan and his administration need to separate the issues of student learning and teacher effectiveness and develop independent policies for both of these domains.
Stephen J. Farenga
Professor of Science Education
City University of New York
Professor of Human Development and Learning and Earth and Marine Sciences
Associate Professor of Biology
A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Punitive Culture, Not Money, Fueling Teacher Attrition