Teachers as Whistleblowers
Yesterday, “The Culture of Fear” was featured over at Education News Colorado’s Opinion section. One commenter raised the idea that public school employees could benefit from statutory whistleblower protection, an idea with which I agreed. Another commenter wasn’t so convinced. He wrote:
What exactly would teachers be blowing the whistle about? That your principal is pushing for better assessment results? MaybeI have been lucky in my teaching experience, but I have never encountered a principal that ignored any reasoned, well-researched, and proven practice that was presented to them. Especially if those proposed ideas would improve student achievement. (Not to mention their jobs)
“For teachers, there’s a difficult choice: should you teach to the Test, or to whatever your principal and district value at the moment, or teach to students’ needs, abilities, and interests? This is a false dichotomy. And quite frankly it needs to stop. CSAP assesses key skills and abilities. In order for students to be successful on these assessments, and for the school to be viewed as successful, teachers need to address each students’ needs, abilities, and interests. They are linked. Let’s stop the strawman fallacies here.
Let’s take some time to break this down.For starters, I agree that there are ways for schools to balance both assessment and instruction, and many successful schools do it daily. However, our current high-stakes testing culture doesn’t readily permit chronically struggling schools to strike that balance. It’s an easier feat in a higher-performing context, where kids come to school with the cultural capital to be successful on those tests, and where teachers can just focus on teaching the skills and content that the tests are supposed to be measuring. (Whether or not they actually do is beyond the scope of this post.) However, in high-poverty areas where many “low-performing” schools are located, the pressure to raise scores significantly and immediately does lead teachers and principals to make unethical compromises. Improving a struggling school by improving the curriculum and methods of teaching in a building is the sort of process that takes time to generate measurable results. In today’s “Look busy! The gov’ment’s watching!” school reform culture, that time is rarely taken. Instead, schools that are still low-scoring, even if they’ve shown steady improvement over time, are often targeted for turnarounds (closure, charter takeover, staff reconstitution).
For instance, I’ve recently gotten to know some teachers from Fremont High School in South Central L.A. According to personnel, that school was showing modest but steady improvement over the past few years as a result of increased collaboration and the introduction of smaller learning communities. Nevertheless, LAUSD decided to “reconstitute” the school, firing half of the staff. Now, in a community like this, which is plagued by poverty, many students come to high school struggling with basic reading skills. Making real change for these kids would require support to address any non-school issues that might hamper student learning, as well as changes in curriculum and teaching methods within the building and similar changes within the elementary and middle schools that feed into it. That is 100% worth doing, but that relatively expensive approach would take a few years to produce measurable changes. It would take less time than waiting for small gains to eventually close the achievement gap, but district and government officials know that it would take way more money and time than they’re able or willing to spend.
As for CSAP (Colorado’s state test) giving teachers and schools actionable information? Not really. Results aren’t released until July or August, so they can’t be used to make adjustments for a current class. Future teachers could theoretically use the information, but often, the reports just show each student’s overall performance in a given subject– that’s not specific enough to guide instruction. So, schools and districts look to other means to figure out what students’ needs are (educationally sound) and to predict who will or won’t pass the state test (educationally questionable). In-class assessments are useful to teachers, because they allow you to pinpoint what students are getting, and what they still need. But for schools under a district and federal microscope, they’re too “squishy” to be considered evidence of progress. Because the teacher grades them, and because the government doesn’t trust teachers’ professional judgment, other tests are required in addition to those.
In my old school (I taught fifth grade), students were supposed to take pre-and post-assessments for each unit in all subject areas, end-of-unit assessments in science and math every 3-5 weeks, Accelerated Reader quizzes at the end of each book they read (as infrequently as each week, or as frequently as each day), DIBELS reading assessments at least once a month, Benchmark assessments (a multi-day standardized test) every three months,, and the DRA2 at the beginning and end of the year, in addition to two weeks of CSAP. That’s a LOT for any 10-year-old, but it’s even more intense for struggling students, who have a lot else to worry about in addition to school. And all of that testing takes time away from instruction and independent practice.
Moreover, many districts are beginning to require at least one test-prep unit in their curriculum guides (Denver Public Schools carves out the month of November for this purpose), and more test prep can be mandated within a building, depending on what the leadership thinks is best. In my former school, reading intervention time was sacrificed for this purpose during the month+ leading up to CSAP. There’s also the documented phenomenon of targeting the “bubble” kids, who are on the cusp of proficient performance, instead of supporting teachers to help all students reach their potential. So, yes, teachers do face a hard choice there. Standing up for a proper balance between assessment and real instruction of any kind, let alone that which responds to student interests instead of strict pacing and planning guides, is difficult under circumstances like these. Well-intentioned but harsh accountability measures often create perverse incentives to sacrifice long-term growth for the short-term illusion of growth, and to increase testing and test preparation at the expense of real learning opportunities. I am just one of many teachers who can personally attest to the professional risks one takes in speaking out against this kind of problem.
But maybe you don’t agree that teachers should be protected for raising legitimate (if unpopular) concerns that arise over differences in belief regarding the true purposes of schooling. Fine.
Cheating scandals in states across the country are just one problem that demonstrates the need for some kind of whistleblower protection for public school employees. This past year, there were reports of scandals in Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Virginia. These were discovered mostly because outside authorities detected anomalies and looked into them. (Lord only knows what other situations might still remain unreported.) That means that scores that were used to decide matters like staff bonuses, promotions, dismissals, and the allocation of taxpayers’ hard-earned money have been influenced by illegal activities. As a professor in the above article notes, states have little incentive to look into the issue. Teachers and other school employees who could bring that information to the public risk retaliation, which is why many would logically (if not ethically) choose to keep quiet. In these cases, it is most often the school’s principal or another administrator who pressures teachers to do unethical things in the name of raising test scores. For instance, in the Massachusetts scandal,
One staff member at a Springfield charter school told state education investigators he felt so pressured by his principal last spring to improve MCAS scores that, in order to keep his job, he helped one student write an essay for the test.
Another staff member said he was fired after he accused the principal of encouraging cheating, while another staff member observed a colleague pull some students away from watching a movie so they could fix answers on their tests.
In light of this, how can one say that teachers have nothing to fear, or would need no protection, in deciding to report such behavior?
Struggling schools face a big, sticky, tangled mess of problems as they try to improve outcomes for students. The teachers in them walk a professional tightrope every day, as they face dilemmas like whether or not to teach against their own consciences, or whether or not to take the risk to expose the more obvious problems they witness in the course of doing their jobs. Providing some sort of protection for public school employees would be a good first step towards encouraging people to report problems. An even better step would be to treat teachers like professionals, and take our concerns seriously enough to help prevent problems like these from arising in the first place.