My last blog responded to Jonathan Alter’s article on a recent report of The New Teacher Project called The Widget Effect. I got curious and decided to read the report myself. I found that Alter fairly summed up the report accurately. Essentially, the New Teacher Project notes the lack of viable systems for evaluating teacher effectiveness in public schools. As such one finds that the overwhelming majority of teachers (90+ %) are given “satisfactory ratings. This practice not only fails to weed out ineffective teachers, but also neglects to recognize and reward truly good teachers. Furthermore, administrators are not adequately trained and equipped to determine which teachers are doing an effective job in the classroom and which ones are not. Thus, teachers are regarded as interchangeable “widgets” which can be equally effective in all situations. This “widget effect” simply perpetuates a sub-par educational system

As far as it goes, the report identifies a realistic concern. As a parent, I was quite cognizant of which teachers seem to “get through” to my children as students, and which ones seem to miss them altogether. While over all I was pleased with the education my children received, there were a few teachers I would have loved to have seen sent their “walking papers.” Likewise I have worked in and with schools, where teacher effectiveness has been a valid concern, and there did not seem to be an easy way to separate the good from the bad, or to get rid of the bad. So as far as it goes, the report makes a good point.

The problem is that this study is narrowly focused on a politically attractive symptom (teachers), and in the process completely ignores the wider context in which the problem of public of education must be discussed. As I read through the report, I saw nothing about the wide range of social and economic circumstances affecting student performance. I read nothing about wide disparities in per student funding created by the antiquated system of funding schools through property taxes. There was nothing included about the total ineffectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act, in which “learning” is equated with test taking. I read nothing about our culture’s misplaced priorities that pays professional athletes, lawyers, doctors and corporate CEOs on one scale and teachers, social workers and childcare workers on another. I also did not see a word about developing curriculum that honors the diverse cultures from which today’s students come.

I share The Widget Effect authors’ concern for raising the bar for our nation’s educational system. However, it is both irresponsible and misleading to assume that teachers operate in a social, political, economic and cultural vacuum. The legendary Brazilian educator Paulo Freire stated that all education is political, and that effective teaching must help students to “read the word and read the world” around them. In other words effective teaching is that which enables both teachers and students to address the major issues and challenges of our world, by treating knowledge not as a commodity to be measured, but rather a problem to be solved. What is needed is not simply a better teacher evaluation system, but rather a whole scale reorientation of values and perspectives on what the meaning and purpose of education truly is. By simply focusing on one aspect of that challenge, The Widget Effect oversimplifies a complex problem, and makes teachers a scapegoat for a failure that all of us in U.S. society have contributed to.