When Non-Learners Grade Teachers

by Martin Harris  

Martin Harris

In higher education, it’s become the practice in recent years for students to grade their teachers. You’ll not be surprised to read, as Charles Murray documents in “Real Education”, that the Students-Who-Wouldn’t-Learn typically give low evaluations to the mean ol’ professors who gave them low grades, and that college administrators typically instruct the instructors to raise the grades and “spread the happiness around”. Grade inflation has already metastasized down into the K-12 years (Murray documents that, too) for the same reasons, but now there’s a new edu-fad arising from all the recent frenetic attempts to change educational strategies and supposedly re-capture the lost productivity and stature of the industry. Thus, it’s not the students who are to grade their teachers; it’s the students’ grades which will be used, we’re told, to decide which teachers to punish and which to reward. If you struggled through the once-required year or two of high school Latin, the phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” will come to mind. If you didn’t, it translates literally into “who will guard the guardians?” and figuratively into “who will watch the watchmen?” or “who will grade the graders?”

Now, if the best and brightest (so they tell us) in educational policy can sell their latest notion to school boards and taxpayers and install their new cure for malaise-in-the-schoolhouse, teachers who are lucky enough to be assigned students posting high grades (and not by use of the post-test Atlanta eraser, but because they could actually -gasp-answer exam questions correctly) will be rewarded with bonuses, and those whose (non)students don’t, will be sidewalked. The process is already under way: The District of Columbia, with the nation’s most expensive and least effective schools (both on a statistical per pupil basis) has just fired 206 teachers and put another 528 on notice. Another 663, who were lucky enough not to have too many disruptive or disengaged non-students (D.C., even more than most low-income urban school districts, has higher-than-national-average percentages of Students-Who-Won’t-Learn) assigned into their classrooms, and could therefore actually teach those who actually wanted to learn, “…are eligible for bonuses ranging from $3,000 to $25,000.” The D.C school administrators have developed an elaborate set of lesson plans and student-engagement guidelines, but they include no option for teachers to suspend the few disrupters who can wreck a class or the even fewer who cause physical mayhem in the room. The closest they have come is with rewards for teachers who “engage” such misfits, while all the others in the room wait for their own education to resume. Nor is there provision in the D.C. ed-rules for any reward for the teacher who gets an equally small number of his/her students to “over-achieve”, and learn even more than the pathetic minimum (grade 8 math tests based on grade 3 math concepts, as Murray describes on p. 57) and maybe eventually become a productive citizen paying taxes to support his inevitably non-productive peers.

In the interests of full disclosure, your Humble Scribe notes that he had never been a full-time K-12 teacher, although he was, briefly, a high school substitute. He has, at various times, been a military instructor, visiting lecturer, and adjunct professor. He never had the privilege of selecting his students, but almost always had the option of referring SWWL’s to the front office, should they surface in the classroom. They never did except in high school sub incidents, when he couldn’t and two did. (Coincidence or causality?) He still lectures, on occasion, but wouldn’t sub again. In Vermont, I knew a half-dozen military retirees who thought they’d try teaching as a second career, but quit when they realized what the new SWWL rules are. How many real teachers (and from the better half of that skill-distribution curve) will flee public districts which follow the D.C. policy of rewarding or punishing teachers in accordance with the SWWL propensities of their assigned (non) students, your Humble Scribe knows not, but it’s a good guess that many will. In venues they consider safe, they say so.

Consider, for example, the recent Texas Tribune article on a State government study “How Schools Mete Out Discipline” which discusses (non)student (mis)behavior and recommends such teacher responses as PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support, whereby normal students should receive even more praise and miscreants should receive (in-classroom) “extra reinforcement”. It’s about what you’d expect from contemporary edu-crat sources. What you’d perhaps not expect is the negative real-teacher commentary following the article. Here’s one, addressed to the study’s authors: “wake up and smell the roses, you smart ones who are no educators. Having a degree in education does not make you an authority on how to handle a classroom”. Another more briefly states that “the schools have gone so PC these days that it’s almost pointless to even have a public school system”. A self-identified “retired educator” writes “…go into a problem classroom for a year and your eyes will be opened. Spend all the money you want, it is of no avail. Who do you think should know more about teaching these children, you or me?” and so on. HS Opinion: fairly rebellious language, even veiled quit-threats, suggesting more than a bit of front-line discontent with “expert” recommendations.

As you might expect, Murray’s prescription for the SWWL problem is at odds with that of the Public Policy Institute of the University of Texas. Very simply, he writes, disruptive students are not to be permitted to remain in class. “Just one student {disruptive or even just disengaged, he explains) can wreck a class. Chronically disruptive students are suspended.”Suspensions are issued readily enough that, on any given day, the school has so few disruptive students in the building that the life of the school is not materially affected by them.” And, students who in any way threaten a teacher verbally or physically are expelled. That’s because threatening a teacher attacks the core of the student-teacher relationship. Read it all in more detail on pages 141-143, for which the sub-head sums it up quite nicely: Give a Safe and Orderly Classroom to Every Student Who is Trying to Learn, No Matter What. And not a word about punishing teachers for students who aren’t trying to learn.