Doubling Down On Teacher Evaluations

This popped up in my Twitter recently:

It’s hard to get so much wrong in 60 seconds but Hess manages it, which is not surprising. No matter how badly teacher evaluation reform efforts fail (and the most expensive one failed spectacularly), you can count on Hess to make excuses and point the finger at every reformer’s favorite whipping boy, implementation.

Related: What Defenders of Teacher Evaluation Reform Still Get Wrong

Hess doubles down on teacher evaluation reform in the video above and continues to demonstrate the extent to which he just doesn’t get it. One has to wonder if he’d be so endlessly enthusiastic about this reform’s potential if it was his money being flushed down the toilet instead of the billions wasted by philanthropists sticking their noses in areas they clearly don’t understand.

Hess starts out by referencing the New Teacher Project’s 2009 report that found that less than 1% of teachers were rated unsatisfactory, a finding that Hess claims sparked a wave of reform (he neglects to mention those reforms were driven by a handful of people with very deep pockets and not the result of some grassroots movement of parents who thought their kids’ teachers were garbage). Hess, like most reformers of his ilk, is especially bothered by the fact that more teachers working in schools with abysmal results aren’t rated unsatisfactory. That’s lazy thinking and damaging to students attending those schools.

While he doesn’t come right out and say it, Hess’s argument implies that he believes a large percentage of teachers working in buildings where students do poorly on standardized tests should be relieved of their duties. He believes this in spite of the clear connection between the socioeconomic status of a school’s students and its test scores. He believes it in spite of a lack of evidence pointing to teachers as the problem. He believes it even though I’m sure he’s read the Johns Hopkins report about troubles in the Providence Public School District, where observers reported deteriorating facilities, a lack of quality curriculum and alignment, unsafe school environments, and teachers who felt “a lack of agency and input into decisions at their schools and classrooms.”

In other words, a whole lot of problems in our schools are created by people other than teachers.

But Hess doesn’t care. “The kids aren’t learning, so it must be the teachers’ fault,” seems to be his motto. Nevermind that the report’s authors “encountered some judgments and attitudes from individual principals that, based on what we know about effective schools, do not support higher student outcomes” or that observers “noted the presence of many devoted teachers, principals, and some district leaders who go above and beyond to support student success.” If Hess had his way, many more of these dedicated professionals would be out of a job because the test scores just aren’t good enough.

Hess then gets to his main point, explaining how “well-intentioned reforms can turn into clumsy mandates” that leave principals spending 150 hours a year filling out paperwork just to evaluate their teachers. That’s a problem, says Hess, because it’s driving away great leaders who don’t want to spend all their time clicking boxes on iPads. Of course, Hess doesn’t mention that all of these observations and focus on test scores might also be driving out great teachers. What he does lament is that even with all this extra hoop-jumping, we still aren’t firing enough teachers!

Hess concludes, “Teachers absolutely have to be evaluated more rigorously” without explaining why. The Gates Foundation already tried it. It failed to improve student outcomes and it led to a host of unintended consequences, not the least of which is that teachers will do whatever they can to avoid working in buildings where the students are likely to do poorly on standardized tests and some of them will say the hell with it altogether. (Who Hess proposes to replace these duds and quitters remains unsaid in the video.)

The solution, says Hess, is to give school leaders more “authority, leeway, and autonomy and then hold them responsible for what they do with it.” I’m sure the Providence teachers who work for those principals who hold “judgments and attitudes that do not support higher student outcomes” would be tickled to hear that Hess wants to give them more authority and less paperwork. And just who will hold the principals responsible when they decide to fire the mouthy second-grade teacher who gets great results and keep the docile, compliant newby who volunteers for every literacy night but whose students don’t do quite as well?

Thanks to reformers, many school leaders have already been given more authority, leeway, and autonomy to evaluate their teachers. Most have chosen to rate them highly. Hess is arguing they’re wrong to do so. But what does he know? He’s not the one watching them work every day. He doesn’t see who goes above and beyond for student success, as many educators in the most challenging schools in our nation do. He’s just looking at numbers, and his response to numbers he doesn’t like is to remove protections for teachers and make it easier to kick them to the curb. That’s not a solution; it’s a knee-jerk reaction that won’t make our schools better and will probably make them worse. Because what good teacher wants to work in a system where her principal has the “leeway” to take away their jobs without even having to spend a couple of hours crossing i’s and dotting t’s?

Are Teachers Trusted?

For about half the days of the last 20 years, I have been trusted with other people’s children. I knew I would be when I decided to become a teacher. It’s an awesome responsibility and scary enough that I spend most of my time at work actively not thinking about it. I have taken large groups of children on field trips, where I am responsible for their safety. I’ve taught countless students who have allergies that could kill them. Every year, I am trained in how to administer a life-saving dose of epinephrine. I am the sole first responder should a student have a seizure in my room, which happened once. I am responsible for getting students onto the correct buses or to the pick-up area at the end of every day when parents call at the last minute with a change in transportation. Fail at this, and an eight-year-old can be dropped off at an empty house or I can create parental panic over a missing child.

I am also responsible for the future of the republic, or so I’ve been told. Economist Eric Hanushek believes that lackluster teaching in America’s schools is responsible for a “permanent recession” and that our low achievement on international tests prevents students from accessing good, high-paying jobs after graduation. If students haven’t learned to read by the time they leave my third-grade classroom, they are consigned to a future of unemployment, substance abuse, and incarceration. More pressingly, they could be held back, which comes with its own serious consequences, such as a higher likelihood of dropping out.

Last year, the idea of arming teachers to protect students (and themselves, I suppose) from school shooters briefly dominated the news. In May, Florida passed legislation allowing teachers to carry guns at school. And so, for a brief moment, when fear (okay, it was probably politics) was involved, even those who regularly bash our education system, its teachers, and the unions to which they belong were willing to trust educators to pack heat around their kids.

Related: So Now They Trust Teachers?

All of this means that I should feel like a trusted professional. Every teacher should. And indeed, most people do trust teachers. Only 10% of those polled by Gallup rate teachers as having low or very low honesty and professional ethics, putting teaching near the top of our most trusted occupations.

The paradox of teacher trust is that while teachers are trusted with other people’s children, the future of the republic, and with firearms, we’re not trusted with the color copier. And the mistrust doesn’t end with expensive ink cartridges. Teachers are subjected to a daily dose of indignities that send the clear message that they just can’t be trusted. Here are ten.

Teachers are subjected to a daily dose of indignities that send the clear message that they just can't be trusted. Click To Tweet

Copies

As mentioned, most teachers do not have access to a color copier. Most of those who do have access must first get permission. As for black and white copies, my previous district wasn’t too trusting here, either. Every teacher was assigned a username and password to type into the brand-new machines. This was a feature that could be disabled by the district. It wasn’t. Such a policy allowed the district to keep tabs on how many copies each teacher ran. And keep track they did. Every year, we’d get an email telling us our number and comparing it to the average. The district also compared buildings, the clear implication being that some people were making too many copies. How those in central office determined that was a mystery, since they regularly displayed an astonishing level of ignorance about what actually went on in classrooms and since they were responsible for the paper-heavy programs teachers were using.

Access to the Building

Some teachers are not trusted to enter their buildings at night, on weekends, or during breaks. For years, my wife was not given keys. When she was given keys (because teachers needed them to enter during regular school hours thanks to the fortress mentality schools have adopted in the wake of school shootings), she didn’t have the ability to disable the alarm system. Clever district leaders will explain such policies by telling teachers that they should leave school at school and protect themselves by staying away. But the truth is obvious: teachers aren’t trusted in the building alone. They might attempt to use the color copier.

Keys to High-Value Rooms

In my last district, the key to my classroom opened the key to every classroom. Except for two. To enter the computer lab (which was where things like extension cords, computer speakers, and ethernet cables were stored), I had to find the computer teacher, the principal, or the janitor. The same went for a tiny room where a technician repaired Chromebooks. By having different locks on these doors, the district sent the clear message that they suspected thieves among the teaching staff. And that janitors from a private company that paid its employees nine bucks an hour were more trustworthy than the professionals they’d hired to educate the community’s children.

The Laminator

I once worked at a building where teachers were not allowed to touch the laminator. It seems some teacher screwed the whole thing up one time by using it incorrectly, so instead of, say, training teachers on its correct use, the principal just banned teachers from even approaching it. To get something laminated, one had to submit the materials to a central location. Then, about a week later, you’d get your laminated stuff back. Provided the laminator didn’t break down. Or the laminator person (also called a laminator?) didn’t take a day or two off. Or she didn’t run out of laminating film. Anyway, I’ve never laminated again.

Air Conditioning

Here’s a new one for me. This summer, my district installed air conditioning in the newly renovated part of our building. They didn’t put in central air but instead installed hulking units in each classroom. Each unit has its own thermostat right there on the side. If you’re jealous, you should be. Until you learn that teachers aren’t allowed to actually control their own air conditioning units. The thermostats don’t do anything because the district has decided that teachers can’t be trusted to not turn their classrooms into walk-in freezers. They have instead given that power to one person sitting at central office. A sort of God of Air Conditioning. Teachers: trusted with the future, just not with the AC.

The God of Air Conditioning

Time

Teachers are not trusted to use their time effectively. For years, I worked in a building where parent-teacher conferences were scheduled from 5 – 8 pm. The idea was to take the hour between 4:00 and 5:00 for dinner or prep. But I didn’t want to stay until eight o’clock, so I started right after school (since there were a number of parents already there to pick up their kids) and didn’t offer parents any slots between 7:30 and 8:00. I left early, but I wasn’t supposed to. What I did wasn’t technically allowed because teachers can’t be trusted to use time how they see fit. Instead, we’re forced to remain in the building for the second half of half-days, required to remain on campus during our planning time, and need special permission from the boss if we need to leave 30 minutes early, instead of just arranging coverage of our classes on our own, like trusted professionals would. What’s especially galling is that teachers, more than any other professionals, regularly volunteer their personal time to do their job. We’ve already proven our collective professionalism and dedication, but districts consistently set policies that suggest they believe teachers would slack off if they weren’t forced to stay at work.

Professional Growth

Have you ever wondered why states require teachers to attend x number of hours of professional development each year, or force teachers to take x number of college credits every x amount of years in order to keep their certification, or why districts require preapproval of said college courses, or why principals do book studies, or why districts offer voluntary PD?

Because no one trusts teachers to keep learning on their own. This in spite of the fact that Dave Burgess has sold about a bazillion copies of Teach Like a Pirate, Twitter is overrun with educhats, and thousands of teachers willingly give up time during the summer to attend conferences.

Professional Judgment

Sure, teachers went to college to receive training for the job. Okay, the state certified them to teach. Yes, they’re forced to learn and keep growing professionally. Yeah, they probably know their students better than people who never interact with them. But that doesn’t mean their professional judgment should be trusted. It’s not enough to say that a student needs extra help. You must have The Data to prove it. It doesn’t matter if a student isn’t learning from the program teachers are required to use. Teachers must not deviate from the curriculum. Teachers who want to supplement must get permission because they can’t possibly know which programs are research-based. Fidelity to programs (often unproven ones), pacing guides, goals chosen at the district level, and forms to fill out so you can show a video are all evidence that your leaders don’t trust your professional judgment.

Lesson Plans

If you’re required to submit lesson plans, you’re not a trusted professional. There are only three reasons teachers are asked to submit lesson plans. The first, and only legitimate reason, is if a teacher is struggling. In an attempt to diagnose the problem, principals should ask to see a lesson plan to determine if the teacher knows how to structure an effective lesson. The second reason is for compliance purposes (to see whether teachers are sticking to a pacing guide (ick) or to make sure they’re actually teaching the standards). The third reason teachers are asked to submit lesson plans is because they work for micromanaging tools who don’t understand how pressed for time teachers already are and who think lesson plans tell them something about what actually goes on in classrooms. Principals have a supervisory role to play and they should trust and verify that teachers are doing their jobs. The way to do that is to walk into their classrooms and watch them teach, not give them busy work that makes it clear how little you trust them.

I have strong feelings on required lesson plans. You can read more here: How to Get Your Principal to Stop Requiring Lesson Plans

Our Words

I once had a principal who wanted a copy of every newsletter teachers sent home to parents. She said it was in case parents called with questions or concerns; if she had the newsletter, she could reference it during the phone call or parent visit. My suspicion was she just didn’t trust her teachers. Since most of us sent newsletters every Friday, there was no way she could read all the newsletters. By asking for a copy, she was making a preemptive strike against any criticism of her or the school’s policies. Knowing you had to submit your newsletter made you think twice before informing parents about administrative decisions they may have opposed. This is the same reason districts warn teachers off social media. It’s not that they’re afraid you’re going to make yourself look bad because you post pictures of your vacation to Cancun and parents might see it. It’s because you might tell parents that the thousands of dollars taxpayers just voted to spend on new Chromebooks was wasted because the district won’t hire people to fix the Chromebooks when they break or because you might share a screenshot of an email written from your boob of a Superintendent in which he states that teachers will be subject to disciplinary action if they wear their union t-shirts to the football game on Friday night.

Perhaps they’re right to not trust teachers to keep their mouths shut when it comes to policies that demoralize them or that harm the education of their students. Or perhaps they could trust that teachers know what they’re talking about. That their concerns are the community’s concerns. That by allowing them their voice they could benefit from word-of-mouth when they do things well. They might realize that by trusting teachers to speak up when things aren’t right, they’ll try harder to get things right in the first place and learn from their mistakes when they don’t, which will strengthen the organization and improve schools for everyone in them.

But until teachers are allowed to print their newsletters in color and not have to send copies to their principals, I’m not holding my breath.

Other examples of how teachers aren’t trusted:

Who’s To Blame for the Knowledge Gap

I’m finishing up The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler. It’s good. Teachers should read it. I won’t go into a long review here because other people have done so more capably than I could, but I do want to offer one veteran teacher’s perspective on where the finger should be pointed, which is a large part of the book.

Wexler does a thorough job of retelling the history of the Reading Wars and how the teaching of reading in our elementary schools has evolved to be skills-driven instead of content-driven. This, Wexler asserts, is a disaster, and one of the main reasons too many kids can’t comprehend text. It turns out that finding the main idea or making inferences aren’t transferable skills; it’s the background knowledge a reader has about a topic that matters. Therefore, teaching comprehension skills is mostly a waste of time. According to Wexler (and others whose work she cites), elementary schools should be in the business of erecting towers of factual information inside the brains of their students, not teaching kids reading strategies such as asking and answering questions, synthesizing, and making connections that only work if they possess enough background knowledge in the first place.

Most elementary teachers are teaching reading skills instead of focusing on knowledge. Wexler investigates why. She lands on a number of different suspects, some of whom deserve far more blame than others. As someone who has been in the classroom since the inception of balanced literacy (I was trained in it my first year of teaching) and who has never been given a content-based reading curriculum, I know where I’d point the finger. What follows is a list of who deserves how much blame for the skills-based approach to the teaching of reading in elementary classrooms that deprives students of the knowledge they need to effectively comprehend texts.

5% Blame: Elementary Teachers

Wexler doesn’t really want to blame teachers for what and how they teach. There are a number of instances in the book where, when describing ineffective classroom practices, she takes care to say that teachers don’t have the authority to teach whatever and however they want. They’re given curriculums and told to use them. They’re also part of a system, so going rogue probably isn’t worth the payoff. If you’re a teacher who reads Wexler’s book you’ll likely leave feeling more frustrated than enlightened. If she manages to convince you that elementary school instruction should be content-heavy, then you’ll be left with a dilemma: teach the way you’ve been told, even though you know it’s less effective, or start designing your own knowledge-based units of study, knowing full well that you could never cover even a tenth of what students need and further knowing that as soon as they leave your room they’ll go right back to being fed a steady dose of skills-based instruction (also, designing your own units is hella time-consuming, you probably won’t do a great job at it, and you’ll likely have to do all of it on the sly).

If this were 1980 and teachers were still left alone to teach whatever they felt like teaching in their classrooms, then they would deserve blame. But in 2019 very few teachers have enough autonomy over the curriculum to be held accountable for what gets taught. If you give your teachers a skills-based curriculum, then students are going to get skills-based lessons. That’s not on teachers. The only blame they deserve is for those instances, cited by Wexler, where school leaders try to push knowledge over skills and they meet teacher resistance to the change. But even here it’s hard to blame teachers who’ve been taught and trained in skills-based reading instruction. As Wexler writes, the teaching of reading as a set of skills is “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even notice it.” 

10% Blame: Administrators

Administrators (and the Boards of Education who rubberstamp their recommendations) have the authority to adopt curricula that focus on building knowledge instead of practicing (and practicing and practicing) skills. Leaders are also in the position to direct teachers to spend more time on social studies and science and less time on reading (which dominates the typical elementary school day). They can also set teacher evaluation policies that don’t emphasize yearly test results in reading and instead take a longer view, thereby encouraging the building of knowledge over many years and deemphasizing the skills teachers believe will lead to more immediate improvements on tests (which, of course, assess skills).

Still, it’s hard to place much blame on district and building leaders for the knowledge gap because they, like teachers, are responding to outside pressures and incentives. Left alone, many probably would like to see a broadening of the curriculum and less of an emphasis on tests. They deserve little blame because the decisions they’ve made make sense in the real world in which they operate. If districts have to evaluate teachers yearly, and if they have to give yearly high-stakes tests, then administrators will do what they can to improve test scores now. And since the tests are based on the Common Core (or a set of standards very similar to the Common Core), then it’s hard to fault leaders for adopting curricula that are aligned to the standards.

15% Blame: Curriculum Designers and Publishers

We live in an era where most elementary teachers are handed a reading program and told to teach it, often with “fidelity,” which means they shouldn’t deviate from it. Even if it’s not working, many teachers are not given the authority to supplement or change direction. The assumption behind such a policy is that curriculum designers know what they’re doing (or at least, they know more than teachers) and that great care went into a program’s design. Such programs, teachers are often told, are Common Core-aligned, meaning if they’re taught the way they’re designed, then most students should acquire the knowledge and skills outlined in the standards.

All of which means publishers are being asked to do the heavy lifting of educating our kids. And if students aren’t learning, then publishers deserve the brunt of our blame. However, publishers didn’t create the standards; they’re simply interpreting those standards and attempting to design lessons that effectively address them. If the standards are junk, or if they’re confusing, or if they simply emphasize the wrong things (as the Common Core does with reading comprehension), then publishers will produce products that lead to disappointing results.

20% The Common Core

For all the criticisms leveled at the Common Core (and there are many valid ones), perhaps the most damning is that the reason so many classrooms focus on reading skills instead of building content knowledge is the language of the standards. Educational publishers look to the standards to design their curricula. They then claim that their programs are standards-aligned. Districts purchase these aligned curricula under the assumption that students will get higher test scores on the standards-aligned tests if teachers are teaching from standards-aligned curricula. If the standards called for all first graders to learn about ancient Egypt, the solar system, and westward expansion, and if the state tests asked questions about ancient Egypt, the solar system, and westward expansion, then programs would be designed to teach those topics, teachers would use those programs, and kids would learn more content. But instead, the Common Core essentially ignores content, relegating it to a note nobody ever reads. Instead of learning about people, places, and events, the Common Core expects first graders to:

  • Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.
  • Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text.
  • Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

The Common Core, which drives the curricula used across the nation, had the chance to center knowledge. Instead, it centered skills. For that, it deserves much blame for the current state of reading instruction. Its creators deserve even more blame for not establishing a mechanism to review and amend the standards when we’ve discovered they’ve failed. We may know better now, but we have no way of doing better. The Common Core’s existence ensures that elementary teachers will continue to use programs that focus on skill-building instead of content knowledge acquisition.

50% Government/Reformers

As much damage as the Common Core has done to reading instruction, the standards could still be safely ignored by those doing the actual work of teaching if government actors, prodded and bribed by education reformers, hadn’t gone crazy over accountability. Those who pushed accountability deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the way reading is taught in elementary schools today. They wanted national standards but knew that attempting true national standards was politically toxic. So they came as close as they dared with the Common Core, which they then enticed states to adopt during the Great Recession. That the standards exist at all is their fault. That they’re so widespread is also their fault. That they can’t be easily changed is, you guessed it, their fault. We’ve got a lemon driving elementary reading instruction and there isn’t much we can do about it.

To assess how well the standards worked, reformers and their legislative confederates needed tests. They also suspected that a primary reason kids weren’t learning was they had shitty teachers, so the tests would identify those teachers and they could then be removed. To accomplish this end, they needed lots of tests. You couldn’t wait until fourth grade to test kids over what they knew because then how would you know which teachers had to be fired?

Because the tests exist and there are stakes attached to them, district leaders want students to do well on them. Because district leaders want good test scores, they force teachers to use programs aligned to the standards, which focus on comprehension skills. Because publishers want districts to purchase their products, they create curricula that align with the content-starved standards, thereby producing content-starved programs. Because teachers are employees who don’t want to lose their jobs (or don’t want the lowest test scores in the district, or don’t know any different, or can’t stand up to authority), they do what they’re told and teach the content-starved programs. And because the tests are given every year after second grade, there’s a disincentive to focus on building content knowledge, which may take years to bear fruit on standardized reading tests. There’s also little reason to teach science or social studies because nobody really cares how kids do on those tests and, besides, test scores in those subjects are so annually abysmal that even if students bomb, no one’s losing their job over it. And there’s the problem that teachers have no way of knowing what content will appear on the reading tests each year, so teaching content in order to help kids do better on the test is a fool’s errand. Better to teach the skills you know will be tested and hope for the best.

If we want elementary schools to provide students with a solid base of factual knowledge so they have the background to understand more of the texts they encounter, we must change how and how often we test. Tests should be content-driven and given far less often. When the tests are changed, publishers will follow. And when teachers are given curricula that focus on content, their lessons will do the same.