Everything Wrong With Detroit’s New Teacher Evaluation Scheme

Add Detroit to the growing list of states and districts looking to revamp their teacher evaluation systems. Test-based accountability reached mania-like proportions during the Arne Duncan years but has slowly abated, with 34 states now requiring the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, down from a high of 43 in 2015. Maine made news earlier this year when its legislature voted to drop a requirement that test scores be used to rate teachers. Thanks to a new law in New York, there’s no longer a requirement that evaluations be tied to the state’s standardized grade 3-8 math and English assessments. Pennsylvania is considering similar reforms. And many states have made other changes to their evaluation systems, with some reducing their frequency and others washing their hands of the whole sordid thing by allowing districts and local bargaining units to work out the details.

What they all have in common is a tacit admission that evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores is a stupid idea. Of course, teachers could have told them that all along (and we did), but even without test-based accountability, designing a system that fairly evaluates teachers has proven to be a Herculean task. There are a lot of reasons for that, and Detroit’s proposed new teacher evaluation system illustrates some of the challenges.

According to this article from Chalkbeat, Detroit’s new system, which they’re calling Thrive For Teachers, will rate teachers on a 100-point scale. Here’s how that breaks down:

  • 40 points from classroom observations
  • 40 points from student growth on standardized exams
  • 10 points from student surveys in grades 3-12 (not sure what replaces these points for K-2 teachers)
  • 10 points based on teachers’ commitment to the school community

Additionally, the district will “provide stronger guidance on how administrators should observe teachers” and teachers “can expect to engage in regular conversations with leaders about their growth and receive individualized professional development.”

Stop snickering.

I appreciate that Detroit’s leaders recognize what teachers have been telling them for years: that the old system didn’t work and there needed to be a new one. And I recognize that designing a teacher evaluation system is a difficult thing to do. But this new system stinks, and it’s worth looking at why it stinks because Detroit’s proposed system stinks in many of the ways all teacher evaluation systems stink.

Regrettable Truth #1 – Classroom Observations Only Work in Theory

It makes sense on paper. A principal, a highly-trained educator with years of effective teaching experience on her resume, stops in frequently to watch her teachers. Using her vast knowledge of education research and the hard lessons she won through years of classroom teaching, she acts as a mentor to young or struggling teachers. She meets with them regularly. She sends them to conferences. She pairs them up with skilled veterans. She directs them to research that will help improve their instruction or classroom management. Her teachers see her as an ally in their quest to raise student achievement.

Unfortunately, this ideal rarely happens in real schools. Many principals weren’t particularly strong teachers; it’s one reason they got out of the classroom in the first place. Even those who were good simply don’t have the capacity to do what would need to be done to truly improve the teaching in their building. Principals, like everyone in education, don’t have the time to do everything they need to do at the level they need to do it. They make do. And they often make do by checking boxes, by minimally complying. They perform the required number of observations for the required amount of time and no more. They have the follow-up meeting with the teacher and never meet again. They often don’t have much to offer even struggling teachers because they either don’t know, are humble enough to realize that what works for one educator won’t work for a different one, or they just don’t have the time to devote to mentoring.

And that’s if the principal is acting in good faith. Putting 40% of a teacher’s evaluation in the hands of one individual is problematic for a host of reasons, the most obvious being that principals are humans and, like all humans, some of them are petty, vindictive assholes. As I’ve written before, there’s a reason Olympic gymnasts are scored by multiple judges with the high and low scores thrown out. People have biases. One person watching a performance does not see or appreciate all of the things another person watching the same exact performance sees or appreciates.

READ: Proof Your Teacher Evaluation is Meaningless

Regrettable Truth #2 – The Numbers Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

In a nice, clean world we would be able to assess the effectiveness of a teacher by measuring what her students know and can do at the start of the year and then measuring those same things again at the end of the year. We would then be able to say how much of an impact the teacher had on each of her students and we could determine levels of poor, average, and exceptional growth and rate the teacher accordingly.

But learning isn’t a one-way street. It involves both the teacher and the learner, and the student’s learning is dependent upon more than just his teacher’s talents and efforts. What if a student missed 40 days of school? What if she refuses to wear her glasses or her parents neglect to have her hearing tested? What if she doesn’t care about the tests, since she has no skin in the game? What if the computer glitches on the big day and she balks at having to do the whole thing over again and then gives less than optimal effort?

When it comes to student performance on a test, there are too many inputs, but teacher evaluation systems pretend there’s only one.

And those are for the teachers who teach tested subjects. Detroit’s new system does nothing to remedy the problem with test-based accountability systems: that as many as half of the employees in the system are required to be rated on tests they don’t directly affect.

Finally, systems like Detroit’s play fast and loose with the language. When Detroit says they will use “standardized exams” for the growth portion of the evaluation, they don’t mean the state standardized test. Districts don’t get that data back quickly enough to use it for teacher evaluations for the current year. Instead, teachers are usually tasked with designing common assessments that all students at their grade level or in their subject area will take or districts misuse benchmark screeners for the purpose. In Michigan, the state test is only given at the end of the year, so there is no standardized test that can provide a beginning and end of the year measure that could be used to evaluate a teacher’s impact. Many of the tests districts use to evaluate teachers were never designed for that purpose, and some were created by people with no education in test design.

Regrettable Truth #3 – Students Are Easily Manipulated

The most novel change to Detroit’s system – and the one that’s generated the most headlines – is the decision to include student survey results in teacher evaluations. 10% of every grade 3-12 teacher’s evaluation would be based on what their students think about them. I’m a third-grade teacher and I can tell you two things. First, I survey my students at the end of each year, and without fail, the things my students like best about my class are not things that prove I’m an effective teacher. Last year, my students liked that I gave them breaks, that I played music during those breaks, and that they were allowed to read on their Chromebooks on Friday. Second, if I thought for one second that I was in any danger of being laid off due to a low evaluation, I would bribe my students on the day they were to fill out their survey. And let’s not pretend lots and lots of other teachers wouldn’t do the same. It wouldn’t even cost me much; you should see what students will do for a sticker.

Regrettable Truth #4 – Teachers Get Exploited. Teachers in Poor Districts Get Exploited More

Classroom observations are defensible because if they were performed as designed by people who should be leading our schools then they could conceivably lead to rich conversations that might improve teaching. You can also forgive Detroit for including student growth data in their teachers’ evaluations because, for the time being, they don’t have a choice; Michigan law will require districts to do exactly as Detroit will do in 2020-2021. You can even understand a district wanting to give students a say in their teacher’s evaluations (although I do wonder if Detroit uses teacher surveys in their evaluations of their administrators). After all, it’s the students who are the “clients.” We’re providing them with a service, so we should care about what they think of that service.

All of that is understandable, even if, in the real world, none of it will work the way it’s intended. What’s totally unacceptable is the final 10% of every Detroit teacher’s evaluation. That 10% is based on a “teacher’s commitment to the school community” and the Detroit Federation of Teachers should fight it with everything they’ve got.

Because all that part of the evaluation does is provide administrations with a cudgel to use whenever they need free labor or when they want teachers to keep their mouths shut.

Some, maybe even most, principals will interpret “commitment to the school community” as “going above and beyond” and “doing whatever is necessary.” They will tell teachers to “do what’s best for kids.” That’s the language of manipulation and exploitation.

READ: What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best For Kids”

Don’t feel like donating two hours after school to attend literacy night? Then you’re not “committed to the school community,” are you?

You aren’t willing to meet with parents whenever it is convenient for them? That doesn’t sound very committed to the school community.

You’re the first one to leave at the end of the day? Not enough commitment.

You expect to be paid for committee work? Well, the district doesn’t have the funds, and besides, you want those 10 points on your evaluation, don’t you?

But the most egregious use of the commitment standard will surely be when something is wrong and a teacher considers speaking up about it. Like, I don’t know, when teachers in Detroit blew the whistle on the deplorable conditions of some of their buildings, including leaking gym ceilings and black mold.

Any teacher that dares to publicly embarrass the district in such a way is surely not “committed to the school community.” You can bet they’ll receive a zero for that part of their evaluation, and with 40% of the rest of the evaluation in the hands of a principal who will observe their teaching, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if such a teacher were suddenly at the bottom of the food chain when layoff time comes around.

Detroit’s new evaluation system is more of the same, with the added insult of language that will make it easier to take advantage of teachers. The Detroit Federation of Teachers should oppose it, and if they can’t defeat it, then they should at least advocate for a name change.

Thrive for Teachers?

That’s some Orwellian bullshit right there.

How to Use Social Media in the Classroom

By Nancy Chavira

Teachers will know that using many different instructional tools in class, at all grade levels, is beneficial to students, and this is also true for using social media in the classroom. This can be especially relevant to students ranging from elementary to post-secondary classes. Incorporating social media in the curriculum will have many benefits like teaching networking, communication skills, and support for the classroom.

  1. Support to students outside of school

More and more, students are searching for ways to get feedback and answers outside of the traditional classroom, and social media provides expectations of immediacy of information. Social media and other online tools make it possible for students and teachers to connect quickly and support each other outside of the classroom, not only between students and their teacher but within their community of students. 

Facebook

One great example of this would be the creation of a Facebook page or group, that’s set to private, for the whole class to use outside of school. Teachers can use the page to post assignments, provide extra guidance or explanations, and answer questions, making full use of evening and weekend hours to expand student learning. Students can also share ideas and suggestions between each other which is great for brainstorming and gaining critical thinking skills and creativity. 

YouTube

Another option available to teachers is creating a private YouTube channel that allows them to teach their students through videos. By taping your lectures and posting them on YouTube afterward, students can reference them later in the week when they’re working on their homework assignments outside school hours and they need a refresher on the subject matter discussed in class. 

Twitter

Another great social media option is using Twitter to share key information with your students like status updates on classes, reminders, and reinforcement of important points from a class, as well as any supplemental learning tools and materials. This can be beneficial for teachers who want to send reminders to their students about tests and assignment due dates that are approaching. If there’s an important article online or a good television program, they can post it immediately when it would otherwise be too late to wait until the next class.

2.  Networking

When students are a bit older, learning about and using social media tools like LinkedIn which are primarily for networking will help them get an early start at building important connections for job opportunities and post-secondary studies. According to Francine Drury, a tutor at Research Papers UK and Writinity, “lessons should also include information about building and using toolkits for professional communication, creating a resume, cover letter, and portfolio, and researching online for pertinent material on their future career or degrees. Facebook is also a good option for learning about networking, communicating in a professional environment, and how to make good impressions on employers and during an interview process.” 

3. Parent involvement

Another great benefit of integrating social media in the classroom is allowing parents to become more involved and aware of their child’s educational process. As Frank Boone, an educator at Last Minute Writing and Draft Beyond explains to his readers that “parents can get updates during field trips, look at assignment requirements, and even support the students by sharing their own knowledge and education experiences to the whole group.” 

4. Weighing the benefits

When teachers are considering bringing social media into the classroom, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. This allows you to understand the benefits but also being prepared for the downsides and having an action plan in place. Despite all the benefits of social media, it can be a distraction, hard to monitor, can lead to cyberbullying, and reduce opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Teachers have to be aware of these negatives and have a plan in place to make sure their online platform is a safe and beneficial space. 

Social media is more and more present in society, especially in younger kids’ lives, so it’s important to show proactively all the useful ways social media can be used to further learning, and preparing children for future communication. Social media benefits the students, the parents, and the teachers in providing educational support, improving communication after hours, and preparing students for their future careers. 

Nancy, a freelance writer at Lucky Assignments and Gum Essays, loves to research and write about educational issues and initiatives, and her goal is to create an engaged community that can discuss different teaching and education tactics. 

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel – Reuse It

By Brian Rock

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may recall the article, Not Every Lesson Is a Lexus. The thrust of the argument was that you cannot – and should not – try to go above and beyond while planning every lesson. It’s not sustainable, and you’ll burn out. Well today we’re going to talk about a corollary to that. Don’t reinvent the wheel – reuse it.

Many teachers are overwhelmed by stress and work. Some of this comes with the territory, but a lot of it is caused by undue pressure from a number of sources.

Lesson plan templates that call for excruciating detail.

Administrators who harp on student engagement and expect every lesson to be as engaging as an amusement park.

New initiatives that call for every iota of content to be relevant and for every task you assign to be high on Bloom’s taxonomy.

The expectation that every piece of student work receives substantive, meaningful feedback.

It’s just not possible.

That’s not to say any of these things are bad. But as the old saying goes, moderation in all things.

You can’t turn it up to 11 every day. From time to time, you should bust out one of those Lexus lessons. But you need to have some tried and true, work-a-day lessons to sustain yourself in the meantime.

This is where having a core set of procedures, methods, and activities in your bag of tricks goes a long way. The wheel has already been invented. You shouldn’t re-invent it every day. Adapt it to your circumstances and re-use it.

Assembling Your Toolbox

When I was in grad school and preparing to become a teacher, one of our assignments was to create a methods log. At the time, I thought it was a bit mundane. In the years since, I’ve realized it was one of the most valuable things I did while at Rutgers.

The methods log was a part of our methods class and practicum. While we learned about how to teach and while we completed our various field placements, we kept a log of different activities and methods we used. This included a short description of the method, an example of how it was used, and an explanation of the circumstances in which it would be useful.

I vaguely remember scrambling at the end of the semester to complete my log and fill it up with a sufficient number of entries. But at the end, I was left with something extremely useful – a bag of reusable tricks.

When I started teaching that fall, I fell back on this bag of tricks.

I did take some time at the end of the summer to thoroughly prepare for those first few weeks. But pretty soon, I was caught up in the day to day hecticness of teaching, and I didn’t have hours to spend planning a single, 40-minute lesson.

Separate the Content from the Process

So instead, to expedite the process, I focused on two simple questions. What am I going to teach? And how am I going to teach it?

The first question was simple. It usually involved looking at the curriculum and pacing guide and knowing that I had to teach something about, say, the War of 1812. Then, I’d think back to my methods log, pick something off the list, and presto. Instant lesson. Sometimes there was a little more preparation involved, locating primary sources or creating graphic organizers. But really it all boils down to the same process: Students consume information. That could be a lecture, a reading, a video, a set of primary sources. Students complete an activity. We assess and continue.

Before I came to teaching, I was considering becoming a software engineer. And an analogy about computer programming is useful here. Software is built on functions. A function is a process where you feed in some kind of data, the software does something with it, and then it spits back out the data you want.

For example, a simple function might take a date – October 18, 2019 – and return the day of the week – Friday. When you’re writing your code, it doesn’t matter how that function works. The process itself has been abstracted so that you don’t have to worry about how it works. You just supply the information and use what you get back.

Amateur programmers have a tendency to hardcode these functions. They write everything from scratch, instead of reusing existing functions. One of the most challenging things about first learning to program is how to think abstractly and how to break your program down into functions. But once you do, it’s a game-changer.

Similarly, you may have a tendency to think about each lesson as unique and try to build it from the ground up. But once you learn to abstract the process and separate the content you’re teaching from the process that you’re using to teach it, it’s a game-changer. You might as well be doing mad-libs. Insert content here, select method there, and voila. Lesson.

How I Reused the Wheel in My Class

Throughout the years, I reused a lot of methods from that methods log. The jigsaw was a popular one, as was the think-pair-share. Gallery walks are great for getting people up and moving, and historical heads give students an opportunity to communicate their ideas in pictures. But I’ll close with a specific example of how I’ve lived this philosophy in my classroom – weekly current events.

As a social studies teacher who cares deeply about civics education, I made a conscious decision to allocate a significant amount of class time to current events. I wanted my students to know what was going on in the world and have an opportunity to discuss and think about those events.

So once a week, typically Fridays, we do some variation on the same lesson. I ask students to share anything they’ve heard about in the news or on social media. We watch a couple episodes of CNN10 and discuss each one in turn. Then, they write as an exit ticket a summary of what we saw and their opinion about one of the stories.

It achieves my goal of giving students an opportunity to learn about and discuss current events. It alleviates the need for me to spend any amount of time planning for the day. And it also gives my students a sense of familiarity with my expectations for writing.

To spice things up, we vary it from time to time. Instead of CNN10, we might watch another video – like the President’s State of the Union Address or a similar speech. Or we might spend some sustained silent reading time with a newspaper and then share out what we’ve read. But these are all variations on a theme, and they are simple adjustments to make.

So think about your own class and your own curriculum. Try and abstract things to separate the “what” of your teaching from the “how.” Polish those methods, and reuse them. Pace yourself, because this is most assuredly a marathon and not a sprint.

Brian Rock is a social studies teacher in New Jersey. He writes a blog about civics education – The Civic Educator. You can read more about proven practices for improving civics education, like teaching current events, in this post: “Six Research Based Methods for Teaching Civics Education.” You can also follow the blog on Facebook and connect with Brian on LinkedIn.

Signs of Classroom Compassion Fatigue

By Crystal Ladwig, Ph.D.

It seems like the children we work with come to us with more baggage than ever before. Some face poverty, violence, abuse, hunger, divorce, trauma, and illness. We are reminded daily of their struggles when they enter our classrooms hungry, tired, dirty, or even afraid. Good teachers can’t help but feel compassion for these children. Over time, our compassion for our students can become more than we can handle, and we experience compassion fatigue. We can get overwhelmed by the magnitude of their problems and our desire to help. Yet, no matter what we do, we can’t alleviate all their pain so that they can focus on learning and being the happy, healthy children we long to see.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

The toll that this level of compassion takes on teachers leads to burnout. Compassion fatigue happens when teachers care so much and become so emotionally invested in their students that they experience psychological, emotional, and even physical impacts such as insomnia, lack of focus, anxiety, and depression. This is a relatively new concept to teachers, but it’s been around for nurses, therapists, and other “care” providers for quite some time.

If you are working with children in crisis or living with trauma or chronic factors that place them at risk for trauma, there are specific symptoms that you should be aware of. These symptoms are similar to those of depression, including self-isolation, difficulty focusing, anxiety, sadness, anger, and appetite changes.

Avoiding and Treating Compassion Fatigue

What can be done to help keep high-quality, compassionate teachers in the classroom and prevent burnout through compassion fatigue? Thankfully, there are steps that teachers can take to support themselves and the students they long to help.

Know what you can do. Having the self-awareness to know what you can do, and what you can’t, helps you avoid taking on more than you can realistically handle. You may want to be the hero to this child, but that may not be realistic. Just because you’re a good listener and empathetic doesn’t mean that you have the responsibility for solving all the children’s problems, nor should you try to do that alone. You can’t prevent all their pain. You can help them to feel as safe as possible in your classroom.

Take care of yourself. Do things outside of school that you find relaxing: bubble baths, walks, and good books. On tough school days, taking even a few moments for yourself can help you calm down and reset. It’s okay, too, to share this with your students. Tell them you’re feeling a little overwhelmed and need to take a moment. Then model a coping strategy like deep breathing to both help yourself and show them a healthy way to deal with stress. Remember, you can’t take care of your students if you’re not taking care of yourself.

Keep a journal. The stress and worry that come with compassion fatigue will eat you up if you don’t let it out somehow. A journal is a great way to privately express your feelings, your sadness, and your frustration. Reading it helps you reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and actions as you put them into perspective. It also helps you realize when compassion fatigue is setting in so you can get some help when needed.

Monitor your feelings. You can sometimes feel so emotionally spent after an entire school day that you just want to lock yourself up and be alone. That’s fine for a while, especially if you need that. But don’t let yourself become too isolated. You don’t have to deal with these feelings and emotions alone. Talking to someone helps you get those feelings out in a healthy way, so you don’t experience burnout. Other teachers and care providers often experience similar things and can empathize with what you’re going through.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the emotions of teaching and showing signs of depression, don’t ignore them. Talk to your doctor or a therapist to help you cope with these feelings without experiencing the burnout that often accompanies compassion fatigue.

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Dr. Crystal Ladwig has taught online and face-to-face college courses for 20 years. She specializes in training future teachers and conducts research on training teachers to work with students with challenging behaviors. 

The Brown Cars of Education

My wife and I were being old and reminiscing while driving to the airport last weekend. Since we were surrounded by cars, we stumbled on the topic of Cars We Used to Own. I’ve owned a blue Pontiac Sunfire, a white Pontiac Grand Prix, and a black Chevy Impala. Jeanie has owned a white Chevy Cavalier that she bought with her own $3,000. She drove her parents’ Buick Regal for awhile. Dubbed “The Mom Buick,” it was originally white, but half the paint had peeled so that it resembled a molting deer. But as bad as that car was, the worst was a brown 1980 Mustang she drove as a teenager. If you’re a Millennial, you might be picturing the kind of brown occasionally seen on the road today. Something like this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Looks orange to me.

Wrong.

Back in 1980, brown meant brown. 1980 Brown was the color of tree bark, of Count Chocula, of turds. It was a hue that inspired nicknames like “The Crapmobile” and “The Rustang.” When new, the car looked something like this.

My wife’s car was not new. It was a butt-ugly vehicle that cost $800 and was held together with twist ties and duct tape. And as we talked about that car, we couldn’t help but notice the paucity of similarly colored automobiles on the highway. Brown cars, true brown cars, have gone the way of the dodo.

Here’s a graph that proves it:

No true brown. Sad!

Car manufacturers just don’t make many brown cars anymore for an obvious reason: Brown cars are disgusting and nobody wants to own one.

But the fact that they used to exist is interesting and provides a couple of useful lessons for those of us in education.

Education has had its fair share of brown cars over the years. There have been many ideas and practices that were once fashionable and are now passe. Learning styles used to be a big deal; now we snicker at teachers who still reference them as if they’re a real thing. When I was in school, no one thought anything of a year’s worth of instruction that consisted of having students open their textbooks, read some pages, and write answers to those questions on lined paper. Today, that’s bad teaching and we should “ditch the textbook.” Homework used to be a given; not it’s contentiously debated. Principals used to literally spank kids with paddles. Now, teachers are scolded for using clip charts. Naughty children who fought on the playground used to be suspended for a few days. Today, we “clear the room” and let students destroy property that should have been purchased by a school district but was just as likely bought by an underpaid teacher.

What’s important to remember is that a lot of the people who drove those brown cars in the 1970s thought they were pretty damn fancy. They looked down on those pedestrian souls who selected white or gray for their vehicles and saw themselves as just a little bit better. A little hipper. A little more with it. At a time when society first began to pay attention to the damage humans were causing to Mother Earth, you could signal how socially conscious and in harmony with nature you were by driving around in earth tones. Greens, browns, and even yellows were far more popular back then than they are today.

Those drivers of yesteryear were no different than teachers who once used methods we think of today as outdated and wrong.

And it’s even more important to remember that some of what we’re doing in our schools and classrooms today are the brown cars of tomorrow. Someday, we will all come to our senses, shake our heads, and wonder what the hell we were thinking. Just as our forefathers believed they were pretty groovy for cruising around in cars the color of trees, grass, and fall foliage, we believe the same today when we take to Twitter and brag about how cutting edge our instructional practices are.

I’m integrating technology into my lessons, while old Denise is still using a textbook.

Our school is using restorative justice with our students while the school across town is still suspending kids.

I’m teaching my students about the marshmallow test, growth mindset, and grit, but Mr. Davis is still teaching the same way he did ten years ago.

History suggests that some humility might be prudent. Like motoring around in a brown car in 1976, you’re doing things today that will be seen as old-fashioned and embarrassing tomorrow. Things you won’t admit to in 20 years. And your leaders are asking (and in some cases telling) you to do things that you (and they) will someday look back on in shame. Some day, we may ask:

How could anyone have thought that taking away art classes for test prep was a good idea?

How could anyone have ever believed that testing kindergarteners was going to help anything?

Why in the world did we take away recess in the name of getting higher test scores?

Why did we give so many benchmark assessments, especially when the evidence showed they did no good?

Why were we so worried about integrating technology?

Why did we squander billions of dollars on secure school entrances?

The next time someone attempts to sell you on the next wonderful thing in education, whether that person is an administrator, a vendor, a colleague, a think tank writer, or an educelebrity on Twitter, remember that once upon a time, car salesmen were able to convince a bunch of adults to buy cars the color of poop. Maybe show a little less enthusiasm and allow for the possibility that the thing you’re being sold isn’t as great as the person selling it to you says it is.

And if you’re being forced to teach in ways you disagree with, take solace in the fact that you recognize what everyone else eventually will: Brown cars are ugly, even if people are choosing to drive them, and even if they tell you you should be driving one too.