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Two Lies and a Half Truth: Teachers and our Jobs for Life

As we approach what appears to be a week-long exercise in propaganda, NBC's Education Nation, we need to arm ourselves by understanding what portion of what is said is true, and what is a lie. Although the fundamental critique of our profession is groundless, there are a few half-truths hiding here and there, and we need to acknowledge real problems where they exist, and offer real solutions based on our on-the-ground understanding of how things work in the schools.

Central to the "Education Reform" narrative is the idea that teachers and our unions are implacable foes of change, unwilling to recognize flaws in ourselves or colleagues. In fact, there is a different story unfolding - and we need to tell it loudly, because we are being silenced by the crescendo of criticism they are heaping upon us.

So let's take a look at some of the false and partly true assertions that are being made this week:

If only we got rid of the bad teachers, our schools would shoot from the bottom of international rankings to the top (asserted on Oprah Monday, without foundation by the very inexpert Bill Gates).

Teachers alone can make up the difference in achievement between disadvantaged children and those who live in wealthy communities. (Judging from the outlines of the panels this will be the central theme of Education Nation)

Teachers have tenure, tenure is granted automatically, and this means we have jobs for life. Teacher evaluation is so broken it is worthless, and the bad teachers are just shuffled from one school to another.

The first two of these are simply false. There is zero evidence that America's teachers are any worse, on a whole, than those in the countries who are outscoring us. There is tremendous evidence that the proportion of our children in poverty is a huge factor here. Finland, which consistently outranks us, has a child poverty rate of about 2%, while we have more than 22% of our children living in poverty. The chronically low-performing schools that are the recipients of special scorn and abuse are often FULL of children living in poverty and violence. Teachers can make a difference, but the VERY STUDIES that are used to prove this, also show that while teachers account for most of the in-school variability in test scores, 60% of the total variability comes from out-of-school factors like poverty, access to quality pre-school, stable families, etc. So while teachers make some difference, it is absurd to suggest that teachers alone can make up the difference between relatively wealthy and disadvantaged students.

Then we come to the question of teacher evaluation. There is a grain of truth here, and I speak from some personal experience. I worked for several years with the District's Peer Assistance and Review process, first as one of the union's appointees to the Joint union/administration committee that oversaw the program, and then as a consulting teacher, who was assigned the task of observing and helping the teachers identified by the evaluation process as needing to improve - or be fired. I saw dozens of evaluations over those years. Many of them were not done thoroughly. Many principals, especially those in the toughest schools, are coping with so many crises small and large that they lack the time to do solid evaluations. Teachers who should not be in the classroom remain there sometimes, not because there is no process to remove them, but because their schools are dysfunctional and the administrators responsible for their evaluations lack the time to do the job properly. So our evaluation systems need to be improved.

The current reform paradigm proposes that we do this by allowing test score data to make a large part of these evaluative decisions for us. "Value-Added" is the favorite model, because it focuses on growth attributed to the individual teacher. This sounds better than NCLB's practice of comparing this year's student's scores with last years, but in reality, it has many flaws. (to read a far more detailed analysis of these flaws, check out this report by scholars from the Economic Policy Institute.)

On the afternoon of Monday, Sep. 27, I will be on a panel with several players in this drama, including Jason Felch, the Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote their recent series which published the names and test scores of teachers, "good" and "bad." So I have been thinking about the real flaws in our evaluation system, and how the use of Value Added data might or might not help us. And rather than focus primarily on what is wrong with the the VAM approach, I thought it might be more constructive to look for the useful things it might offer, and see if I could describe a truly powerful and effective teacher evaluation process.

The reasonable idea here is that schools ought to provide teachers with data showing how their students did on their tests, and that this data should be part of the evaluation process.

But the LA Times takes this several degrees beyond when they suggest test scores are a reliable indicator of a teacher's quality, and go so far as to publish names and test scores for individual teachers.

This project is based on the assumption that if you want better quality, you take out the bottom five percent and provide incentives for the rest to meet your targets. This might work with car salesmen, but it is a terrible approach for our schools.

Our students need teachers to focus on strategies that attend not only to test scores, but to many other goals and values we care about, including creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. What our students need most of all is continuity and commitment from a caring group of adults willing to work over the long haul to strengthen the school and connect to families and the community. In our poorest schools we find the highest turnover, and this strategy is likely to make turnover even higher.

I taught for 18 years at an Oakland middle school. We had a problem in our science department with turnover. We were losing two or three teachers every year from our department of ten. Rather than worrying about how to get rid of people, we wanted to keep our teachers, to build a stable community that could grow together as a staff. So each staff member took on a newer teacher to support and collaborate with, and the next year we lost nobody.

We worked together as a team to strengthen our assessment practices. We expanded our team to include the math department, because they were envious of all the collaboration we were doing. We observed one another teach, and followed a Lesson Study protocol to help one another reflect and improve. Two of us became National Board certified.
This sort of professional work is what makes us better as teachers, and what keeps us connected to one another and to our schools. This approach sees effectiveness not as a fixed thing, but as something we develop and grow.

Teacher evaluations should be embedded in and promote this kind of collaborative culture. We should be focused on KEEPING teachers in our schools and strengthening them, rather than going on a witchhunt to find the ones supposedly to blame for low test scores. A truly collaborative culture, where teachers open up their classrooms and share, will do far more to invigorate instruction than a hypervigilant administration with a mountain of VAM data. And I would also suggest this type of culture would be far more effective at getting rid of those unwilling to adopt more effective teaching strategies - because the doors will be open, and their poor ways of teaching will be apparent to everyone.

Another value that evaluation could add is to guide a teacher's professional growth. The trouble with teacher evaluation now is that most administrators do not have time to do a good job with everyone, so they do a cursory job with most teachers, and perhaps focus more attention on one or two they want to terminate. This makes evaluation either irrelevant, or a gotcha game. Adding VAM data to this broken system will not help.

If we can create a climate of trust between teachers and administrators, it should be possible for the two to sit down, take a hard look at the teaching standards, and identify some areas of growth. That sets us some goals to work towards through the year, through reflecting on our practice, work with our school team, or outside professional growth activities.

We should look at student performance, including test scores. But we need to be careful to look for different forms of student work, and not be driven solely by the data that is most easily accessible.

Those doing the evaluating should be trained, not just in observing, but in giving useful feedback.
The main purpose should be to help inspire growth and build connections to the professional activities that help us grow more effective.

Why not do what they do in Santa Clara? There, teachers have the option of collaborating with a partner to investigating an instructional strategy, and preparing a report they share with their administrator.

How about what they do in Minneapolis? There, evaluations that reveal areas for growth are connected to teacher-led professional development that targets that area, and teachers conduct action research as they implement the new strategies they have learned.

How about expanding Peer Assistance and Review,
the program that offers coaching to teachers that are struggling, providing them with feedback and a chance to improve. In my work with PAR, in almost every case, the union and administration members on the PAR board were in complete agreement as to who should be given a negative report, and who should be retained. This process can work as part of a strong evaluation system.

Most of what passes for school reform, VAM included, starts from the premise that we must force people to be effective, and chase them down and expose them if they are not. I would start from the opposite assumption, that teachers want to be effective, and we need to structure our systems to support them in becoming more so.

And I would close by pointing out that while teachers are the largest variable within a school, the difference they make is dwarfed by out of school factors related to poverty. And as the poverty rate soars so that one in four of our children is living in poverty, and our economy crumbles, isn't it strange that the media and billionaire education reform hobbyists have decided that the future of our nation hangs on weeding out the bottom 5% of our teachers?

Many of these ideas are explored in greater depth in a report I helped create, "A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom, An Evaluation System that Works for California," available here.

What do you think? Can we improve teacher evaluation?


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