Society and Culture, Education

Matt Damon’s Misguided March

Amid the thousands of teachers who organized on the White House lawn at the Save our Schools March last weekend, one in particular captured the attention of advocates and reporters alike. Actor Matt Damon, who traveled across the country to support his mother (who is a teacher), gave a speech thanking educators for their hard work and criticizing teacher evaluation systems based on value-added student test scores. Later on, when asked about using incentives to improve performance, Damon dismissed the idea as “intrinsically paternalistic,” in a hardnosed reply that led Anderson Cooper to warn others against “messing” with the well-known movie star.

While Damon rightfully praises teachers for their tireless and noble efforts, his rhetoric around teacher evaluations sends the wrong idea about policies meant to improve teacher quality, not to punish teachers. To be sure, teacher evaluation systems are far from perfect, but they are an important step in the right direction. For years both exceptional and underperforming teachers have flown under the radar, with rudimentary evaluation systems in which 98 percent of teachers were considered “satisfactory.” Efforts to address this egregious lack of information and accountability should not be seen as an indictment against teachers, but rather an attempt to equip teachers with better knowledge and support. In the case that a teacher has not made progress and continues to fail his or her students, evaluation systems ensure that another dedicated teacher is given the opportunity to serve students.

Further, test scores are only part of the picture. Though Damon criticizes these systems as robbing students of creative and individualized experiences, many state evaluation systems are much more complex. For example, Rhode Island’s evaluation system not only considers student test-scores, but also whether teachers ask thought-provoking questions that empower students to think creatively. Washington D.C.’s IMPACT system includes multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, such as the degree of teacher collaboration in the school, and offers “minimally effective” teachers a year to take advantage of helpful professional development opportunities. Further, Denver’s evaluation system, ProComp, not only rewards teachers with bonuses for evidence of student growth, but also provides incentives for teachers to work in high-needs and hard-to-staff schools.

Damon’s speech provides us with a useful opportunity to examine the punitive rhetoric often used by opponents of using test scores as a factor in teacher evaluation. Instead of criticizing policy makers for creating a culture based on student test scores, let’s steer clear of the hysterical morality plays and help to scale up teacher evaluation programs that are ensuring that good teachers remain in the classroom and providing others with data to improve their practices. Instead of critiquing the culture that has put policy makers and teachers at odds, we can acknowledge their common goal is to do what’s best for kids, and work together to develop evaluation systems that fit the unique needs of each school. There is no prescriptive formula for teacher evaluation, but that doesn’t mean that the debate should be off the table in the name of “saving” teachers.

Allison Kimmel is an intern at AEI.

4 thoughts on “Matt Damon’s Misguided March

  1. Allison,
    You have tried to take the high road in the text of your essay, but while using the term “misguided” in the title, you seem to have missed the “misguided” point of Matt Damon’s speech. Teachers have been attacked by the very systems put in place to “help” them. For many of us who have actually taught in the public schools (18 years) we have seen the best intentions of legislators and reformers cause harm time and again in the name of doing what’s best for the kids. Eliminating tenure, disbanding unions, “holding them accountable” all sounds good to the simple-minded who want a simple answer to a complex issue. Providing an effective teacher for every child is the goal of all of us – it’s just not a simple goal to reach unless there is more civil discourse about what great teaching is. Whomever gets to define “effective teacher” gets to hold all the cards and so far it has meant standardized test scores!

    Your phrase – “In the case that a teacher has not made progress” sounds great in theory, but if making progress means not getting students to improve on state standards-based tests, then count me out. There are many “pilots” of programs that use multiple points of data, but so far all rely heavily on standardized test scores for the bulk of the evaluation rating. Until these tests actually can test a love of learning and what most feel is important, and not just recall, we are stuck using a flawed measure in an imperfect system.
    I think what Matt Damon was trying to say is that “we trust you”, “we believe you have the best interests of our kids in mind”, “we know the job is difficult and you do it not for financial gain or fame, but for the love of learning and teaching”. I hope he means that “we got your back” stands for a movement that will stand up to the billion-dollar test companies and corporate-sponsored legislators and say “Enough of the teacher-bashing”.
    As soon as real, live classroom teachers are brought to the table to design and test a system that actually works to include enough of the variables that go into great teaching and student readiness, I’ll be first in line! Until then, I’m glad there are people like Matt Damon who care enough to speak their minds and do what they think is best without being beholden to any patron or funding source.

  2. Damon went to an exclusive exclusive private school and has a college professor mother. He has no idea what the average LAUSD teacher is like. I’m so tired of the wealthy telling us all how to live.

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