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Is teacher demoralization the next step?

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

When Japan’s education ministry recently allowed municipal boards of education to make public the results for individual schools on achievement tests taken by sixth and ninth graders nationwide, it paved the way for the next logical question: How do teachers at these schools perform?

It’s always risky to predict events in one country based on the experience of other countries, but if the past is any guide, it would not be surprising if Japan’s education ministry next decided to urge the posting of rankings of individual teachers along with those of individual schools.

There is a precedent for this.

In 2010 and 2011, the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles based on the newspaper’s analysis of test scores. The series included the names, work locations and test scores for nearly 6,000 teachers. It subsequently updated the list to nearly 11,500 teachers. The New York Times did something similar in 2012, followed by The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In all three cases, the newspapers in question took intense heat for labeling teachers as failing, using what many consider to be flawed data.

The larger issue is whether transparency has limitations. To put it differently, does naming and shaming work?

In Los Angeles, one teacher committed suicide after he was identified as ineffective based on his students’ test scores.

If events in the United States are any indication, Japan’s education ministry needs to carefully weigh its next step in attempting to establish accountability. In a society where teachers historically have been accorded great respect, efforts to subject them to humiliation would be counterproductive.

It’s hard to believe that doctors would be ranked based on mortality rates, regardless of their specialization and the environment in which they practiced. Why should teachers be any different?

There are factors beyond the control of both. This is not an excuse anymore than gravity is an excuse for why objects fall to the ground.

From all indications, the global economy is slowly transforming Japan’s schools. Teachers are feeling pressure to change their instructional methods to promote critical thinking, rather than rote memorization. For Japan, this is a radical move. But it’s important to remember that whenever teachers are subjected to new demands, there are bound to be a few who find it difficult to alter their instruction. It’s not insubordination; it’s habit.

Publicizing their names in newspapers when their students fail to measure up is a prescription for demoralization.

The U.S. is learning this lesson in its relentless attack on the profession. The effect is seen in the high rate of turnover. Education Department data show that almost 50 percent of teachers leave the field within the first five years. The No. 1 reason is the lack of support from the school and the community.

Whether teachers in Japan will react differently is impossible to know. But embarrassment is not the way to motivate professionals.

Teachers in Japan, like their colleagues in the U.S., do not choose to educate the young for fame, fortune or power. They do so because they want to help their students to become all they can be.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.