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Who's afraid of the Big Bad Teachers?

If you follow education reform politics these days, you understand that from President Obama on down, there is a consensus among those who call themselves "reformers" that the main obstacle to improving schools is the way teachers have been insulated from accountability. The result is that there are many ineffective teachers who hold back our students. The worst of these teachers hold low expectations for their students, and must be very highly concentrated in low-performing schools - because, according to Federal policy, such schools have a chance of improving only after at least half the teachers have been fired.

As with many faulty theories, there are some grains of truth here. I worked inside the evaluation process in the Oakland schools, which has more than its share of low-performing schools. As a member of the Peer Assistance Review (PAR) Joint Committee, and then as a PAR coach working with teachers who had been identified for this process due to poor performance, I spent several years working with teachers to make sure problems identified in their evaluations were addressed. I saw scores of evaluations, and then worked closely with many of the teachers who had been evaluated, giving me a unique perspective on the process.

Are there teachers with low expectations? Absolutely. It was my job to work with teachers to make sure they were challenging their students, and most of the teachers on my caseload were not doing so. Many of them had reached a tacit agreement with their students - I will pretend to teach if you will pretend to learn. I observed an English teacher who would read the answers to worksheets to his tenth graders - he called that scaffolding. His biggest assignment of the year was a three-page-long research paper that took three months to complete. My efforts with him and some of the others to whom I was assigned were largely fruitless, but the process worked. He was convinced to retire after many years in the District.

Was it tough to get this individual out of the classroom? Yes, it was. I worked with him for a year, and provided a detailed report to the PAR Joint Committee, composed of five teachers and four administrators. Their recommendation then went back to the principal, and was used as part of the unsatisfactory evaluation that finally convinced the teacher to retire.

This teacher had taught for more than twenty years at one of the toughest schools in the District. Was this type of instruction the norm at this school? I would say that ten or fifteen years ago it was more common, but that in recent years it has become much less so, as administrators have become more vigilant and expectations for students have been raised.

So is it reasonable to have a process that takes at least two years from start to finish to get an ineffective teacher out? I believe it is, because this process protects the integrity of the evaluation process. This is very similar to the safeguards we have through our system of justice. We do not simply allow a police officer to throw someone in jail because they believe they have committed a crime. We need evidence to make this decision. Similarly, before we end someone's career as a teacher, we have a process to follow.

Before an experienced teacher is accepted into the PAR program, we made sure their evaluation was done properly. If the administrator had not performed the necessary observations, or followed the contractually required procedure, the referral would not stick. Once in the program, the teacher would be observed at least once a week, and be offered support, resources and ideas to improve instruction. The teachers had a real chance to fix the issues that got them in trouble. And if the observations showed improvement, or that the referral was not warranted in the first place, the teacher would get a recommendation that they be retained.

So the PAR process works - but the evaluation process at many schools still does not work very well. The primary reason for this has little to do with obstructive unions. In fact, California, with almost all of its schools unionized, has higher termination rates than many right-to-work states where teachers can be fired more easily. The trouble is that at many schools, especially low-performing ones, administrators are overwhelmed by everyday crises and do not have the time or energy to do proper evaluations. The same administrators responsible for teacher evaluations also must do the paperwork on student suspensions, call parents when there are fights, and deal with a thousand other urgent matters. The critically important but less urgent matter of teacher evaluation often falls by the wayside.

We do need to improve teacher evaluation.
Administrators need more support in doing this difficult work. We have too few administrators, and their burden is far too great. Many principals in Oakland work more than twelve hours a day, and are still behind on such tasks. Furthermore, evaluation would be far more effective if it were integrated into the professional growth culture at a school. How about a system where a teacher would meet with an evaluator and come up with a growth plan for the year, complete with steps they plan to take to learn, and ways of applying them in their classroom? Then the teacher works with peers to carry out this plan, and writes a report in the spring describing what they have learned. Teachers in Santa Clara, California, benefit from such a process.

We will get much more from evaluation when it shifts from being a "gotcha" game, and becomes connected to each teacher's growth as an educator. There will still be cases where administrators need to use observations to document problem areas, and follow due process to terminate teachers unable to improve, but an evaluation process that encourages growth would do a lot more to improve a school than one that focuses on firing people.

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I have worked with a group called Accomplished California Teachers, which developed a detailed report that was released this spring describing improvements in the teacher evaluation process. Many of these processes, such as the ones I describe above, are in use in various districts around the state and nation. Improving our schools, especially the low-performing ones, will take patient steps to build them up, strengthening the instruction and the capacity of the teachers there. A new vision for evaluation will help. Firing people wholesale will not.

What do you think? Is it too hard to fire teachers? Should teachers take more responsibility for the evaluation process?

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