Op-Ed: Don’t Treat Them Like Widgets

| The New York Times | Timothy Daly

Great teachers are among the most respected people in our society. We revere the teachers who shaped our lives and who go the extra mile for our children. It’s the teaching profession that has a status problem — one that prevents it from attracting or keeping enough talented people to deliver on the promise of an excellent education for all.

The biggest obstacle is that teaching is still based on a set of factory-era policies that treat teachers like interchangeable parts. In a 2009 study, my organization labeled this phenomenon the “widget effect.” Most school districts can’t distinguish their highest-performing teachers from their lowest; wrongly, they act as though all teachers are the same.

The widget effect degrades the teaching profession. If you do a fantastic job in your classroom, you can’t expect a fast track up the career ladder or even a pat on the back. You’ll get the same formulaic, seniority-based raise each year as the lower-performing teacher down the hall. During these hard economic times, you might even get a pink slip, since it’s illegal in 14 states to consider job performance in layoff decisions.

If you’re struggling, you can’t expect any feedback to help you get better. You’ll most likely get a “satisfactory” evaluation rating like 99 percent of your colleagues. After a few years, you’ll probably earn tenure, regardless of whether you improve, as will nearly every other teacher.

Nobody wants to be a widget. So how can we elevate the status of a profession that refuses to elevate its own best practitioners? How can teachers earn public trust when the public sees such indifference to excellence or failure?

It's odd that efforts to increase professionalism in education are often derided as “anti-teacher.” The hard truth is that as long as the widget effect persists, teaching will never be an elite profession.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, teachers unions have taken much of the blame in this debate. But crusading against unions won’t raise the status of teaching any more than will failing to challenge them when they defend counterproductive policies like “last-in, first-out.” The solution is setting high expectations, evaluating teachers fairly and accurately, and making job performance really matter. That’s what we should all be fighting for.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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