The Real Reason Teachers Are Evaluated

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, a group of self-important people decided that schools weren’t getting the job done. Naturally, they blamed this failure on the people working inside the schools. Since only one group of people worked directly with the students who were doing such an abysmal job compared to their international peers, they decided that teachers were the root of the problem.

The solution was simple: Get better ones.

But attracting people who might be better teachers than the ones currently doing the job would be difficult and costly. Teaching is hard. You can’t get rich doing it, no matter how driven you are. And taxpayers don’t love paying for things.

Providing better training to those who were already willing to become teachers might help, but that seemed hard too. How rigorous of a training program are you going to put candidates through if the reward at the end is an endlessly stressful job that (eventually) pays a middle-class income and subjects the graduate to scapegoating for all of the nation’s ills? Would better training even make a difference? If B and C students were becoming teachers and it was too hard to entice A students to the field, then was it really prudent to reform teacher training programs? How good should we expect B and C students to be?

So they landed on the one thing they could control and that wouldn’t cost much money: Get rid of the bad teachers. If you got rid of the duds, then only the good ones would remain. And then students would do better.

In order to get rid of those bad teachers, they had to make it easier for districts to fire them. So they attacked tenure and removed other teacher protections so districts could more expeditiously dump their losers.

This idea had the benefit of being nearly universally supported. For who could oppose getting rid of awful teachers? Most people had no trouble thinking of at least one teacher who deserved the ax.

I’ve worked with two truly bad teachers in my eighteen-year career. One was a gym teacher who only had her students play cat and mouse. All year long. Never went outside. Another was a grump who hung on for the paycheck. She mostly showed videos. Not educational ones, either. She’d just stick a full-length Disney movie in and let it play all afternoon while she sat at her desk and grumbled at students who dared talk during the film. The rest had varying levels of dedication and competence, but they all did the job. They taught. They cared about how their students did. None of them mailed it in. But fire those two? You bet!

If it had stopped there, with getting rid of the worst of the worst, most teachers would have supported the reforms. Nearly everyone in a school knows who should no longer be teaching. An evaluation system needn’t be any more complicated than asking everyone in a building to write down the names of teachers who should be let go. If the same name shows up five or more times, then get rid of that person.

But no. That’s cruel. That’s unfair. It’s not very scientific. The potential for abuse is obvious. Why, school personnel might conspire to get rid of an unpopular but effective teacher!

So we made it more complex to give the appearance of fairness.

We now have convoluted evaluation systems that require a lot more money and work so we can churn out lots more numbers and labels. Instead of just getting rid of the worst among us, administrators have to observe every teacher, fill out onerous checklists, input countless data points, and complete several year-end evaluations, all so teachers can be ranked and sorted and given a meaningless number and silly label.

Tests have to be created, not to assess students, as tests are supposed to, but to assess teachers because there have to be multiple data points. Districts spend thousands on preapproved evaluation systems like Danielson and Marzano and thousands more on data warehouses. Administrators have to be trained to use the evaluation tools so we can pretend they’re being used consistently.

We do all of this because we want the decision to fire a teacher to appear scientific and therefore fair.

But in reality, the observations are subjective, which means they’re unscientific and therefore unfair. The tests often measure proficiency instead of growth, which makes them not very useful for judging teachers. The potential for abuse is obvious. Why, administrators might conspire to get rid of an unpopular but effective teacher!

In other words, we’re wasting scarce resources to not solve any problems. We have traded a simple way of removing bad teachers for a complicated way that squanders an incredible amount of time and money, is not actually any more scientific or fair than a simple vote would be, and can easily be used to target teachers that administrators don’t like.

We’ve done it because it allows us to comfort ourselves with the lie that this way — because it’s complicated and there are numbers involved –is a more fair way to do things.

But it isn’t. It’s just more dishonest, wasteful, and cowardly.

Does Your District Really Care About Student Achievement?

If you asked any employee of nearly any school district whether their focus was on student achievement, I’m confident most would say that it was. That is, after all, kind of the point. Why else would we spend countless hours planning lessons and checking papers? Why form committees to investigate curricular options and then spend thousands on new programs if we didn’t think they would improve student performance? Why would district leaders spend limited funds on professional development and other teacher training? Why stress over standardized tests scores to the point that we all but bribe students to try their best, and why spend hours analyzing the results of those tests if we didn’t care about what those tests said about how we were serving the educational needs of kids?

It certainly seems like everyone involved in a school system is trying his or her best to improve student achievement. And yet I remain unconvinced. Consider this:

Does your district do anything to identify and attract the best teachers from your area to come work for it?

I ask because we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the largest in-school influence on student performance is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. I’ve been told this so many times during my teaching career that I’ve lost count. It’s not the principal, or class sizes, or the condition of the building, or the curriculum, or student access to technology.

It’s the teacher.

Which means that schools that are serious about improving student achievement ought to do everything within their ability to find, hire, and retain the best teachers they can afford.

Most don’t.

Here’s how most districts go about hiring a new teacher:

First, they wait until they have an opening. In poor districts, this often happens because fed up teachers head for greener pastures. In more affluent districts, openings usually occur after a retirement.

Once there’s an opening, the school district posts the job. They then sit back and wait to see who sends them résumés. They go through the résumés and try to guess who might be a good teacher. They interview some applicants, pick the one they want, and usually offer to start them somewhere near the bottom of the district salary schedule. Then they sit back and hope they chose wisely.

But if school districts really cared about student achievement, their hiring process would look nothing like what is described above. Districts that really cared about student achievement would:

Be constantly scouting teachers in surrounding school districts in an attempt to identify the best ones at each level. They would know, just like NFL or Major League Baseball general managers know, who the top five kindergarten teachers were. They would know the best chemistry teachers. They’d read student reviews on Ratemyteacher.com. They’d make phone calls to people in their professional networks. They’d interview students who transferred into their districts about the educational experiences those students had with different teachers in their previous districts. They might even get their hands on teachers’ year-end ratings, which are a matter of public record. They’d keep files on teachers they would love to put in front of their students, and they’d check in with them periodically, perhaps inquiring about how happy they are at their current place of employment and whether they might be persuaded to leave it.

When these achievement-driven districts had an opening, administrators wouldn’t sit around and wait for applicants. They would immediately reach out to the top teachers on their scouting reports. They’d find out what it would take to get those teachers to leave their positions to come work for them. They’d offer to pay them more than they were currently making, instead of insulting them by offering to start them at the bottom of the pay scale.

Once they hired these all-stars, they’d do what they could to keep them around. Great teachers might be more expensive, but districts would get more bang for their buck than they would spending that money on textbooks, PD, or fancy new tablets and SmartBoards. The research on that is crystal clear.

So why don’t districts operate this way? Because there’s a greater incentive for district leaders to save money than there is to improve educational outcomes. (And maybe because there’s an unspoken agreement among superintendents to not poach each other’s best teachers.)

Regardless of the reasons, it’s clear that if your school district doesn’t know who the best teachers are in the area, then they have no intention of hiring those teachers. And if they aren’t willing to pay effective teachers what they’re worth, then they’re not really serious about improving student performance, no matter how much they may protest to the contrary.

 

 

 

A Letter to Principals Regarding Walkthroughs

Dear Principal,

A couple of days ago you did a round of walkthroughs. You popped into five different teachers’ rooms for about five minutes each. I know this because at lunch later that day, we teachers talked about it. We have a request.

Please ask us why.

We would prefer these walkthroughs not happen at all than continue as they have. Even though I’m sure you tell yourself that you’re doing them to stay informed and to be in a position to help should you notice any problems, they’re nonetheless evaluative. How could they not be? Most of us remember our undergrad experience where we visited actual teachers’ classrooms. While the purported purpose of such visits was to learn from a professional, we spent most of the discussion afterward picking apart the teacher’s decisions.  We judged. It’s what people do.

It’s not the judging we have a problem with. We expect to be evaluated. The real problem with walkthroughs is that they don’t happen often enough.

It’s human nature to focus on the negative. We get that. We also get that you’re going to find something to criticize. When I conference with my best writer I’m going to highlight some area where she can improve, even though she’s heads and shoulders above her classmates. That’s my job, after all, to help all students get better. Same as yours with respect to your teachers.  Constructive criticism isn’t the problem. We can live with that.

What’s harder to stomach are the assumptions you make. You have an impossible job, often made more impossible by your bosses. You’re pulled in a hundred directions and you just can’t get into classrooms as often as you’d like. We get that, too. But it matters.

Because the infrequency with which you visit our rooms leads to a lack of context. And that lack of context causes you to make assumptions, which are often wrong, but which may be reflected in our evaluations anyway.

During your five minutes, you noticed that Sarah had her head down while I was teaching and that I did nothing about it. You saw Patel go to the bathroom without asking, just as I got to the critical part of my lecture. Joseph sits by himself at the front of the room and that didn’t sit right with you.

So ask me why. Ask me why because you don’t know. 

You don’t know what happened five minutes, or five hours, or five days, or five weeks, or five months before you walked in my room.

You don’t know that Sarah complained all morning about not feeling well and that she only got three hours of sleep because of her new baby sister. You don’t know that the reason she’s not engaged is because her body won’t allow her to be and that the reason she has her head down is that five minutes before you walked in I told her to put her head down.

You don’t know that Patel’s mom emailed me at the start of the week to tell me that Dad’s about to come home from prison after three years and that Patel’s anxiety over the change has manifested as a nervous bladder. You don’t know that Patel and I have a deal to prevent a mortifying accident for which he’ll be remembered the rest of his life: don’t ask, just go.

You don’t know that I’ve tried everything with Joseph for the past five months, but the kid just can’t sit near anyone with bothering them all day. You also don’t know that his seating location is a sign of tremendous progress. Because Joseph finally acknowledged his problem and asked to sit by himself so he could focus better. He’s not separated from his classmates because I gave up on him or I’m trying to shame him. He sits there because he wants to sit there.

You don’t know these things because you lack context for what you’re observing. That’s not your fault. But it is your fault if you don’t ask me why.

Why didn’t you tell Sarah to sit up?

Why did Patel leave the room without asking?

Why does Joseph sit by himself?

It’s a simple word that invites teachers to provide you with the context you lack.

Because if you don’t ask why, many of your teachers won’t tell you. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to come off as whiners. They don’t want to be the difficult one because the difficult ones get let go when districts cinch their belts and principals vote teachers off the island.

By not asking your teachers why, you put them in a difficult position. They can keep their mouths shut and risk having your ill-informed observations affect their evaluations and your opinion of them moving forward, or they can try to explain. But whenever people initiate explanations for their choices they come across as defensive, which others perceive as tacit admissions of error.

So, principals, do your walkthroughs if you must. Do them more frequently if you can. Don’t tell us they’re not evaluative because they are. And please stop assuming you understand the choices we’re making in the five minutes you’re judging us.

Ask us to tell you why. 

 

 

 

 

Maybe American Teachers Don’t Suck

Could it be? Is it even possible? Are American teachers actually good at what they do?

Education reformers would have you believe that they are not. Not by a long shot. Their evidence? Student test scores. After the results of the 2009 PISA test were released, Head Reformer Arne Duncan, sounded the alarm:

“The chief reason that U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing countries is not their diversity, or the fact that a significant number of public school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem, OECD concludes, is that “socioeconomic disadvantage leads more directly to poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries.”

Our schools, in other words, are not doing nearly as much as they could to close achievement gaps. As schoolchildren age in America, they “make less progress each year than children in the best-performing countries,” according to the OECD.”

He then pointed the finger squarely at our dumb teachers, writing:

“The United States has a lot to learn from South Korea, Singapore, and Finland about building the teaching profession and recruiting teachers from the ranks of top students.”

Reformers are convinced that if we just had better teachers, those middling test scores would skyrocket. In their minds, the two are conjoined, which means that since our scores aren’t very good, then our teachers must not be either. That belief explains why critics are up in arms at the end of every school year when the evaluation systems they were so sure would lead to legions of teachers being fired instead reveal that principals think almost all of their teachers are pretty good.

Their frustration and bafflement are palpable, with headlines like:

Schools Rate Almost No Teachers Ineffective

Michigan School Districts: We Have No Ineffective Teachers

Even After Colorado’s Teacher Evaluation ‘Revolution’ Fewer Than 1 in 1,000 Rated Ineffective 

Brookings was so discouraged that they claimed that “Teacher Observations Have Been a Waste of Time and Money.” (They’re right.)

There are only two possible explanations for why more teachers aren’t rated ineffective. Either principals are giving high marks to undeserving teachers, or principals know what they’re doing and teachers don’t, in fact, suck.

We know what the reformers believe.

While critics of American education base their opinions of teachers on test scores, there are other ways to evaluate people. I can study the statistics of my favorite baseball team, but I can also watch them play.

And of course, not everybody cares about test scores. As a parent, I don’t judge my child’s teacher on my kid’s test results. Evidently, I’m not alone. Because when we ask the American public what it thinks about teachers, we learn that:

–79% of parents are satisfied with the education their oldest child is receiving. (Source)

–The public believe that just 15% of teachers are unsatisfactory.  (Source)

–77% of Americans trust and have confidence in America’s teachers. (Source)

–Americans rank teachers behind only nurses and military officers on questions of ethics and honesty. (Source)

These numbers are remarkable. In spite of well-funded, incessant attacks, three in four Americans still have confidence in teachers, trailing only nurses as a profession. That’s pretty good company.

But you protest. What does the American public know? Half of them don’t even know where New York is.

What about teachers themselves? If anyone should be able to accurately assess teachers, it’s other teachers. So how do teachers rate others in their profession?

According to a 2017 EdNext Poll, teachers rate the performance of 11% of other teachers as unsatisfactory.

While that’s more than districts identify, it still means that teachers, who should know effective teaching when they see it, believe that 89% of their colleagues are getting the job done.

Recognizing that teachers might be the most honest evaluators, a few school districts have experimented with Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs, where mentor teachers work with and evaluate fellow staff members. A review of the Columbus, Ohio PAR program shows that of the 5,861 participating teachers, 9.5% either resigned or were let go. In Cincinnati, dismissal rates ranged from 2.9% to 7% between 1997 and 2001. Rochester terminated 8% to 12% of new teachers between 1998 and 2003. (Source)

So although teachers judge their colleagues more harshly than principals do, they still conclude that about 9 in 10 teachers ought to keep teaching.

Well fine. All these adults think a very small percentage of teachers should be removed from classrooms. But what about the kids? Surely, the kids ought to be the fairest judges. They’re the ones having to put up with teachers’ uncaring attitudes and ineptitude. They spend every day with them! It’s their opinion that should count the most!

The website Ratemyteachers.com has been collecting students’ opinions of their teachers for a number of years now. Students can hop on there, and, in seconds, rate their teachers on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the highest. So what do American students think of their teachers?

The average rating for a teacher on the site is 4.45.

Millions of students have spoken out and they seem to think their teachers do not suck.

–Parents think the great majority of teachers do a good job.
–Principals think very few teachers are ineffective.
–Teachers conclude that about 90% of their colleagues are good at their jobs.
–Students rate most of their teachers highly.

Maybe the rest of us should believe what everybody except the people who base their evaluations on test scores and who have a poorly concealed agenda to dismantle public schools have to say.

The Best Christmas Gift For Your Child’s Teacher

gift teacher

I’m a parent as well as a teacher, so you’d think I’d be one of those parents who spoils his daughter’s teachers with great gifts for the holidays. After all, I ought to know exactly what they want. But the truth is, there are years when I get them nothing at all. It’s not because I don’t appreciate what they do. All teachers know exactly how difficult the job is. Even teachers who do the bare minimum are providing parents a hugely valuable service. If you doubt that, take a look at child care costs these days.

There are a number of reasons — most of them bad — that I fail to get my daughter’s teachers a little something to show my appreciation. I’m cheap. I’m lazy. I don’t like shopping. I don’t want to look like I’m sucking up. But the biggest reason is that I have no idea what to get someone I don’t really know. So I do nothing and then feel bad about it.

But this year is going to be different.

As a teacher, I know that we don’t really want anything.

Actually, scratch that. It’s not true. Like everybody, we like getting gifts. I should say that we don’t expect anything.

Any gift we receive — homemade macaroni masterpieces,  coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, Amazon gift cards–will be appreciated. That said, there is one gift that will be treasured by any teacher and that I’ll be giving each of my daughter’s teachers this year.

Here’s what makes it the best Christmas gift for your child’s teacher:

  • It’s free.
  • It takes just a few minutes.
  • You don’t have to leave the house.
  • If you forget, you can still deliver it once the holiday break starts.
  • It’s foolproof; every teacher will love it.
  • It’s valuable and enduring.

What is it?

An email of genuine appreciation that specifically praises the teacher and that is copied to his or her principal.

Here’s why:

First, a lot of teachers have a tremendous amount of self-doubt. Most of us fear that we’re not very good. We’re sent this message quite regularly. Politicians aren’t shy about saying it. School leaders might try to be supportive, but administrator walk-throughs, pacing guides, and an insistence that teachers adhere to unproven programs instead of using their best judgment all send the message that we’re not trusted because we’re not very good.

Even in the best school cultures, teachers are presented with daily evidence of their failures. While we tend to credit students for their successes, we accept responsibility for their failures. And there are always failures. Stuck in our own rooms all day, we have little idea if what we’re doing is any good, so we assume it probably isn’t. We know that our most successful students would probably be successful with any teacher, while we wonder if those who struggle with us might be better off in a different room. A letter of appreciation lets the teacher know that you value their work. That they’re are making a difference for your child. That they don’t suck.

Second, teachers are evaluated by their principals. These evaluations are often based, at least in part, on observations of their teaching. The observations are subjective, and principals are human beings. They can’t know everything that’s going on because they’re too busy. But they hear things. Those things influence their opinions of teachers. If principals hear more positive things, they’ll think more highly of their teachers. It’s similar to how we judge movies. If you hear that a movie is great before you see it, you’re predisposed to like it. A principal that hears a lot of good things about a teacher is going to be more likely to give that teacher a good evaluation.

So if you want to do your kid’s teacher a solid, or if you just want an easy gift idea, send your kid’s teacher an appreciative email and make sure you CC her boss.

Here’s a template you can start with:

Dear Mrs. [Teacher’s Last Name],

I just wanted to take a minute to express my profound gratitude for the work you do as [Child’s Name] teacher. [Child’s Name] has not always loved school, but he really looks forward to coming to school each day this year. I know a large part of that is the relationship he has with you.

I also appreciate how you communicate with me and other parents through your newsletter and by promptly responding to emails and text messages. I always know what’s going on.

Lastly, I know the job of a teacher is stressful. I have just two kids of my own and can only imagine the challenges of trying to teach [Number of Students the Teacher Teaches]. While I’ve never seen you teach, [Child’s Name] tells stories, and I am impressed by the good humor you’re able to maintain in the classroom.

I hope it’s okay that I copied your principal on this email. I just want him to know how much this parent appreciates the good work you do. Have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy your well-deserved break. Thank you!

[Your Name]