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John Thompson: The Center for American Progress Pushes the Good, Bad and Ugly in Teacher Evaluation: Part 2

This week my guest blogger, John Thompson, is exploring the stance taken by The Center for American Progress on the issue of teacher evaluation.

Guest post by John Thompson.

The Center For American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, has largely bought the educational agenda of "the billionaires' boys club." It seeks a balance, with just enough union-baiting to appease corporate powers. The CAP does its share of teacher-bashing, apparently in order to parrot the word "accountability" over and over, but it does not want to spark a stampede of teaching talent from inner city schools.

Two new reports, "Designing High Quality Evaluations for High School Teachers," and "Teaching Children Well," embody the tension inherent in the CAP's "Sister Souljah" tactic of demonstrating its independence from Democratic constituencies by beating up on educators. Both document the potential of improved professional development, informed by data and enhanced by video technology, to improve student performance. One also asserts that test score growth must be used to evaluate teachers, but the other is largely silent on that issue.

"Designing High Quality Evaluations for High School Teachers," by John Tyler, (and discussed in yesterday's post here) describes the promise of Cincinnati's robust professional development system, that was linked with the district's collaboratively negotiated teacher evaluation system. But Tyler notes two problems. Firstly, it costs $7,500 per teacher and, secondly, teachers resist the cheaper alternative of being evaluated by videotape by people who may have no understanding of their school's circumstances. Tyler does not seem to understand, for instance, why teachers in troubled high schools would not want to be evaluated on video, "by out-of-district evaluators who would potentially have little or no contextual information to accompany the videotaped teaching episode."

The second report, "Teaching Children Well," by veteran education researcher Robert Pianta, is the best educational paper I have seen from the CAP. Based on studying 5,000 classrooms, Pianta estimates that only a quarter of those classes have the high-quality teacher-student interactions that are necessary for significant improvements in schooling. Even worse, he documents the increased disengagement by secondary students so that by high school, half of students say they do not give their best efforts to school. With a problem this huge, clearly we cannot fire our way to better schools.

Pianta's extensive study of classroom instruction has uncovered sets of teacher behaviors that have been proven to contribute to increases in learning. He proposes that those observed behaviors should be the "target" of professional development.

Pianta has identified three domains to be targeted for professional development. The first is Emotional Supports, which has three dimensions: positive classroom climate, teacher sensitivity, and regard for student perspectives. The second is Classroom Organization which addresses: behavior management, productivity, and instructional learning formats. The third category is Instructional Support, which includes: concept development, quality of feedback, and language modeling.

The first third of the targeted methods focus on connecting emotionally with students, nurturing warmth, respect, and flexibility. The second third would help teachers reflect on and practice methods of improving their own behaviors, as well as those of their students. The last category would help restore exploration, analysis and problem-solving, and higher-order thinking to their rightful place in the classroom. Teachers would be taught skills for open-ended questioning, as well as providing feedback.

I understand how easy it would be to allow our eyes to glaze over when reading such terminology, but it is important to recognize how different these interactions are from the dumbed down rote instruction that has been imposed in the name of data-driven accountability. For the last decade, schooling has been directed towards a narrow part of the brain. But Pianta would not only free teachers to get back to the core business of building trusting relationships with students. His professional development would empower them by offering explicit examples of techniques that allow teachers to interact more profoundly with students.

Some of Pianta's techniques are disarmingly simple. For instance, a video library of more than 400 one- to two-minute video clips of effective interactions, combined with instructional coaching, would provide concrete assistance to teachers. Every couple of weeks, teachers could videotape their own instruction and send it to their coach. Feedback could be provided online, in person, or on the telephone.

Pianta also describes his model for professional development "as a foundational component of multiple-indicator rubrics for gauging teacher quality that have sprung up in the latest round of standards-based education reform efforts, such as Race to the Top." I'm not sure what that means, but it falls short of a full-throated request to have high stakes attached to professional development. After all, Pianta argues that educators are already facing overwhelming pressure for results, and that "is not a situation conducive to good decision making." so, using the threat of high-stakes accountability doe not seem like a promising method of encouraging teachers to better relate to students.

And that gets us back to the logic of John Tyler and other CAP studies. Tyler justifies the use of test score growth for high stakes purposes because it is cheaper than high-quality professional development, and because we can't afford to leave any information about teacher quality on the table. Apply that logic to videotaping instruction, and the logical extension would be to keep the videotape machine running nonstop, creating even more information by monitoring a teacher's every action. Of course, that would be absurd.

The prime reason for collecting information must be the improvement of instructional practice, not forcing compliance. Perhaps the CAP and other "reformers" will consider the thrust of Pianta's work and recognize that the better path for helping kids is respecting teachers as professionals and building on our desires improve our practice.

What do you think, would teachers welcome videotaping for improving their practice? Or is the reason to fear that it would lead to more "Big Brother" micromanagement? Could this form of professional development remain valuable if linked to evaluations?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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