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An 'Unsatisfactory' Teacher Speaks Out

A Brooklyn special education teacher published an op-ed in The New York Times this weekend outing himself as a "bad" teacher, as defined by his district-mandated evaluation.

The author, William Johnson, whose students have a wide variety of disabilities, recalls the observation that earned him the "unsatisfactory" rating: His assistant principal walked in when a student with emotional disturbance was cursing and throwing pencils. Johnson sent the student to the dean and was marked down on his evaluation for not following the school's discipline procedure. Johnson writes:

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my "assertive voice" in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for "classroom excellence." Was I really a bad teacher?

Johnson goes on argue that the trend to toward using teacher evaluations to hold educators to greater accountability is ill-advised. Teachers don't require any more sticks, he says, noting that teaching was a "high-pressure" job long before the accountability movement. :

The truth is, teachers don't need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that's not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments—not to weed out the teachers who don't produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

It's interesting that the piece coincides with—but does not directly address—New York City's controversial decision to publicly release teachers' value-added scores, which experts have said can contain large margins of error. Johnson does mention limitations of high-stakes testing, but his primary gripe is that the scoring of classroom observations is overly subjective and variable.

Couldn't that be used as an argument for including value-added measures in evaluations? As we noted last week, value-added scores in NYC do account for differences in student populations, which adds some level of objectivity.

There's (unfortunately) no room for comments on the Times' site, but supportive teachers have taken to writing responses on Johnson's GothamSchools blog. It would be great to get a discussion going here as well.

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