Schools and Politics: Teacher Evaluation Reform

Summary: Top down federal or state mandates have a role, but may also suppress professionalism on the local level. The latter, not good.

About the time I wrote my last post urging union and administration alike to find common ground and reach a workable consensus about reform of teacher evaluation, my own state legislature passed a bill that, among other stipulations, mandates that teacher evaluations will reflect student growth as measured on standardized tests. While there are reasons that such measure does not reflect all manner of quality in a teacher’s performance with his or her students, clearly these metrics have something to say.

In addition, the bill will apparently replace the current seniority system with a process that will more readily make it possible for poorly performing teachers to be let go, after a period of focused attempt to improve the teacher’s skills.

Though there are a variety of objections to be made, from the petty to the substantial, I am convinced by the experience of my school with the blunderbuss that is No Child Left Behind, that such imprecise mandates have a role in forcing change.

Once again my local newspaper, The Seattle Times, this time on its editorial page for March 13, provides a backdrop for these comments. While the Times endorses this legislative development as a step in the right direction, its editorial writer laments that the state teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, “was able to weaken the evaluation bill.” From the Times point of view, the bill was weakened because in its adapted form “the extent to which test scores and other student achievement data will count in teacher evaluations will be decided locally,” that is, in the bargaining process between local districts and associated teacher unions.

The fear is that the intent of the bill will be watered down in the local bargaining process and the hard fought reform will be vitiated, a not unreasonable fear.

For the record, I am of the mind that student progress on standardized tests should be one important part of the evaluation process. But principal evaluation, and even student and peer evaluation are also valid assessment tools, and may reflect qualities of teaching that the current exclusive focus on certain skills, albeit fundamental ones, does not well measure.

The Times and those of their persuasion tilt too far to the hierarchical view of things, in my view. While top down clout plays a role, such as in the federal promotion of reform, ultimately the change must be embraced on the grass roots level, in the schools, where teacher meets student, and on the local level where school administration is charged with creating the optimum atmosphere in which students learn and teachers teach.

While it may well be argued that the Washington Education Association is fighting a rear guard battle by insisting that the specifics of teacher evaluation be determined in the local bargaining arena, consider also what I have argued in various ways in this blog. To the extent that control is wrested from the teaching corps, and from the administrators, school and district, with whom they work, to that extent professionalism on the local level becomes hostage to an overly hierarchical environment, and all local parties tend to look elsewhere for direction rather than focus their energies on the lessons they are learning from the raw material in front of them – their students — and the slow process of grasping how students will best respond to one initiative or another, one technique or another.

We will not, I believe from my experience, achieve what we all wish for our students, if we cannot rely on power placed on the local level, and the expertise we nurture there.

Essentially, we are talking about polar opposites in theories of change. Bureaucracies exist to manage programs, and when bureaucracies want to reform practice, power inherent in various mechanisms is used to achieve results. Federal money, for example, is used to further the aims of No Child Left Behind.

At the other extreme, we have various histories of change that begin and are nurtured on the very local level, from neighborhood organizing, to the work of Saul Alinsky and his disciples, to the New Haven schools accord I mentioned earlier, to some of the events of the Arab Spring.

Both are valid approaches. Though the Times and fellow travelers seem to want to confine unions and teachers and their districts, squiggling, in boxes defined for them, too much of this power play is short sighted because it suppresses the professionalism, the prerogative of choice, that we need to be developing.

We need to support conditions such as those that apparently existed between the New Haven schools and their teachers’ union, in which a mutual trust was established, a common ground identified, in which teachers as professionals had a seat at the table and with freed energies committed to a change that has already had profound implications for the reform of New Haven classrooms. (see post 3/14/12….)

From this line of reasoning there is in fact a wisdom in what the Times considers a weakened statutory position. As the law stands, there is now structure that requires classroom metrics to be part of evaluation. Almost by definition teachers and their administrators are better qualified than state legislators and editorial writers to determine the specifics of how the new reality can be turned to the betterment of students. Bureaucrats await direction; professionals act. We need to create the latter, and avoid promoting the former mentality in the classroom.

Yes, there is risk of “the same old” wooden approach to change. Fair enough. However, I argue that some of the “same old” is a hierarchical structure that stifles teacher professionalism, and which in fact is a principle factor in the slow pace of change. Too much top down only reinforces the status quo.

It is in the nature of authority, when worried, to overly control by specifying process as well as result. The Seattle Times editorial fell victim to this trap.

Better a balance between the hierarchical and the local, and where there is top down direction, make it such that professionalism is promoted on the local level, in the interaction between teachers and their supervisory administrators, with a mutual respect and a common aim.

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