School Politics: Is Teacher Evaluation Destined for the Rabbit Hole? (Part B)


Last post (5/18/12) I introduced an article by Jenny Anderson in the New York Times, February 19, 2012, “States Try to Fix Quirks in Teacher Evaluations”, and explored some of the ins and outs of reform efforts in teacher evaluation, in which Tennessee has been one of the states early out of the box. This week continues the meditation. See the most previous blog post for the run up.

Were principals themselves or, god forbid, even teachers involved in the construction of the Tennessee teacher evaluation system? I suspect not, or only tangentially, because the pragmatic, “do-ability” of the Tennessee effort seems to be in question, which leads me to suspect that even if teachers or principals were involved in the planning, they were not weighty in the final resolution to the extent that bureaucrats, superintendents, university professors, and legislators were.

These latter folks almost certainly are well meaning, perhaps even once upon a time themselves were denizens of grass roots schools, but in the contemporary context likely lack the real time, real juice experience of current line teachers and principals. So the current product, pristine in its thorough capture of the many theoretical nuances of teaching, is proving to be unworkable.

Parenthetically, thorough going consultation with line teachers implies an acknowledgment of teacher professionalism and expertise at a time when teachers in my view continue to exist in a kind of limbo between a union, blue collar identity, and an associative, professional identity. As long as administrators and the educational bureaucracy take it upon themselves to reform the teacher ranks along a one-way street without significant degree of consultation and the respect thereby implied, the blue collar identity will continue to be reinforced, and the reform movement will continue its sluggish style of progress. Teachers for their part bear considerable responsibility to upgrade their professional identity, but the parties, teacher and hierarchy, will tend to stay locked in relationship as usual as long as administrators of all levels continue to approach them as widgets to be conformed rather than as professionals with whom they work. We have here a classic vicious cycle, in which the behavior of each party reinforces the dysfunctional behavior of the other.

On a related note, principals are quoted in Anderson’s article as frustrated that they must on one hand exhaustively evaluate folks they know to be high quality teachers, and on the other that they may be forced to evaluate a lesson as substandard that they intuitively know to be a quality one because it lacks one or more attributes that the subcategory system identifies as critical. My own district has an unwieldy evaluation system, unwieldy for administrator and staff member alike. Over a period of years, depending upon what my duties are, I will generally cover most if not all of the items upon which I am to be evaluated. But in one year I may not touch in several areas, and so run the risk of being down graded in that one year.

Is Tennessee trying to take too much discretion out of principal hands? For example, in one principal’s plaint who could speak for many of us in schools, “you know when a good lesson is being taught without looking at a rubric.” Or do the arrayed categories force evaluators to look at elements of teaching that a given principal might overlook in their inevitable time constraints, or which have disappeared from their consideration in the length of time since they themselves have been in the classroom? Probably both are true. Still, Tennessee’s directive that new teachers are observed six times a year and veteran teachers four, which acknowledges the role of experience, is probably on the right track, even if the number of overall observations will have to be adjusted still further at least in the intermediate run.

Though consolidation of some of the Tennessee sub-categories seems an obvious, even if interim solution, there may be other ways, though untested for the most part on any large scale basis, to balance out the evaluation of teachers. In an article about Rahm Emmanuel in the April 2012 Atlantic (“Rahm Emmanuel Takes Chicago: Meet the New Boss”), Jonathan Alter quotes Timothy Knowles, head of the Urban Education Institutes and a consultant to Emmanuel on education, as claiming that the best predictors of  teacher effectiveness are student evaluations, which correlate with “surprising accuracy” with other measurements. Knowles is quoted as balding asserting that standardized tests “have been gamed so mercilessly by many states that they’re of limited use.”

Mind you, these are the same standardized tests whose alleged chimera we have been following slavishly over the last ten years or so. The target has slid down the rabbit hole. It is not clear if we have followed right on down into wonderland, or if the target has emerged looking the same, but fundamentally changed in ways we do not publicly acknowledge, if we are to agree with Knowles. Given the Tennessee legislature’s consideration of decreasing the score needed for a teacher to obtain tenure (see last week), it seems that state’s efforts are in danger of diminishing into a similar oblivion. All of this satisfies my love of the absurd, but brings up short any optimism I might have that people of good will can substantially influence our politico-educational game in a sustainably positive way any time soon.

As I feel the need to end on a relatively optimistic note, I suggest our schools will continue to muddle on through incremental progress, much of which will be done on the grass roots level with kicks in the rear from state and federal levels. Teacher evaluation likely will follow the same pattern.

Nonetheless, I think there are bigger issues at play; teacher evaluation, as important as it is, is secondary to broader cultural and institutional trends that impede progress.

For example, in the longer run, the cultural fabric must undergo shifts that will induce our students to become more urgent in their acceptance of what we offer them, because our students too little buy into what we are trying to teach them, due to a host of illnesses peculiar to this unique society, and regardless of reforms schools themselves still must make.

Another example, another culture shift specifically within the educational setting: schools must find ways to be more collaborative and teachers more professionalized.

Finally, state and superintendent levels must find ways to incentivize promising initiatives via well designed goals that are fleshed out on the grass roots level, rather than by micromanaging as though schools are like a factory floor.

Should these miracles occur, the teacher evaluation conundrum may well prove a footnote to bigger stories.

Alas, I still feel the need to end on a relatively optimistic note….

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