Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

evaluation

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Evaluations are in. All of your good intentions, hard work, and personal sacrifice have been boiled down to a number and a label. Are you “highly effective” or “innovating,” or merely “developing,” like you’re an insect in its larval stage instead of a professional educator?

Whatever your label or your number, you shouldn’t take too much pride or allow yourself to feel any disappointment or shame over it. Your evaluation is meaningless.

My district uses Marzano and everything is entered into iObservation. The last step in the evaluation process is for me, the teacher, to go in and “acknowledge” my scores. Why this is necessary is a bit of a mystery, since I am in no way allowed to question or challenge my final score. The state of Michigan gives districts total power when it comes to teacher evaluations. No due process. No appeals. No presumption of effectiveness. It’s all very democratic, and obviously designed to help teachers get better (he said sarcastically).

Once I acknowledged my rating, I was then provided the opportunity to leave a comment. I guess this is iObservation’s way of throwing teachers a bone. We may not be allowed to tell our principal, “Actually, the stupid learning goal was on the board. You just didn’t see it,” but we can sound off in the comments section. As a reminder, that’s the section nobody reads.

Nevertheless, it was my only chance to offer any thoughts, so here’s what I wrote:

I continue to find the evaluations arbitrary, based on questionable data, and demoralizing to the profession. That 75% of any teacher’s evaluation is in the hands of a single individual should be cause for concern. That that individual, however well-meaning and effective he or she might be, bases most of his or her evaluation on a small sample size of a teacher’s instruction is also concerning. It’s a flawed model, operating inside of a flawed system, foisted upon professional educators who were given little opportunity to provide input to the flawed legislators who pushed for more accountability based on the flawed belief that American schools, and therefore the people who work inside of them, are failing. The whole thing is nonsense, and I therefore put no stock in the above numbers, whether they be high, low, or somewhere in between. It’s a shame that principals have to waste so much time on it.

To add to the above and to put everything in list form, here is why your evaluation is meaningless and therefore not worth hanging your head or puffing your chest over.

Your evaluation is likely composed of two parts: administrator observations and student growth data. Both have major problems.

Student Growth

  • The student growth portion of your evaluation is likely based on cruddy assessments. Mine was based on screeners, which were never intended for teacher evaluations.
  • Students are not held accountable for their performance on the cruddy assessments, which makes you wonder how much they really care about them, which makes you wonder how hard they try on them. (I’ll give you a hint: two of my students were done with the 30-question reading test in 10 minutes.)
  • In my district,  growth scores are harmed by students who start the year with already high numbers. They have the least room for improvement, and that lack of growth lowers teachers’ ratings.
  • The whole thing sets up terrible incentives, which I try my best to ignore. Teachers in my district joke about getting students to bomb the fall screener to show more growth. You could actively lobby for the lowest students to be on your class roster to have a better chance of showing growth. There’s no doubt that some teach to the screeners, so kids get the idea that reading is really about saying words super fast. The list goes on.
  • Those students who missed more than 20 days of school? Doesn’t matter. It’s somehow your fault they didn’t learn as much as they should have.

Observations

  • Most of the evaluation is based on principal observations. I had two.  If we only needed two songs to evaluate a band, Tesla would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Observations are only as good as the people making them.  They’re meaningless if principals across buildings and districts evaluate their teachers in different ways, which they do.
  • Observations are only reliable if we assume that principals can shelve their personal biases when observing a teacher and rely only on their training (assuming they received any).
  • Evaluations lose their meaning when those being evaluated are judged against different criteria. The current system assumes districts have at least a somewhat similar approach to evaluating teachers. They don’t.  My wife’s district handles the whole thing differently than my district. An “effective” teacher in one district won’t necessarily be effective in a neighboring district. Some districts make it nearly impossible to be “innovating,” while other districts start teachers out there and only lower them for cause. That makes the system junk.
  • Basing a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation on an administrator’s observations makes the system ripe for abuse. Observations might be an honest appraisal of your skills or they could be the result of office politics or personal grudges. If it’s the latter? Well, there’s always the comments section.

And why only observations and student growth, anyway? I’m a teacher, a service professional. Why don’t parents get a say in this? Why don’t the students?

I don’t mind being evaluated. I just wish my evaluation actually told me something, anything, about how well or poorly I do my job. Until it does, I find it hard to care. You should, too.

The Most Offensive F-Word in Education

 

f-wordI was speaking with a teacher about the new reading program her district adopted. She lamented that administration had told the teachers, in no uncertain terms, that the program was to be implemented with strict “fidelity.” She said the word with unmistakable disdain. Like how most people say, “phlegm.” It’s no wonder. There isn’t a teacher in the world that likes the word fidelity. It’s the most offensive F-word in education, and for damn good reason.

The reason administrators demand fidelity is blatantly obvious but never admitted. Ask your curriculum director why you can’t supplement when you see the need, and you’ll be lied to. He’ll prattle on about a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” and how it’s “research-based” and “Board-approved.” He’ll tell you it’s Common Core aligned.

All nonsense.

The real reason districts demand fidelity is they don’t trust their teachers. They don’t respect their abilities, dedication, or decision-making. They believe that, left to their own devices, teachers will ignore the standards, use ineffective practices, and, I don’t know, run around with their pants around their ankles while singing Neil Diamond songs. Put simply, when a district tells you to teach with fidelity and never supplement based on your observations and analyses of student outcomes, it’s sending a clear message that they don’t view you as a professional.

Such a district’s opinion of you is so low it’s willing to put the education of your students in the hands of a huge corporation, whose only motive is profit, ahead of you. You might think that such unbending faith is the result of compelling evidence of a program’s efficacy. You’d be wrong. Johns Hopkins researchers found that districts primarily rely on piloting and peer recommendation when selecting new programs, not evidence that it actually leads to higher student achievement.


But we don’t need rigorous research to tell us what is blindingly self-evident: If there were a program that consistently raised test scores, every school would be using it. The fact that neighboring districts tell their teachers to implement two different programs with fidelity is all we need to recognize the folly of placing unfaltering trust in such programs.

Fidelity does real damage. It destroys teacher morale. New teachers quickly learn that they won’t be permitted to use much of what they just learned in college. Skilled teachers become exasperated at being micromanaged and distrusted. All teachers resent the loss of autonomy. It’s bad for teachers, and it’s also bad for districts. Autonomy is positively associated with teacher job satisfaction. Research shows that when teachers perceive a loss of autonomy they are more likely to leave their positions. Demanding fidelity leads to resentful employees, greater instability, and higher costs associated with attrition.

The worst thing about fidelity is that it harms kids. A student who struggles to read is stuck with text they can’t access. A student who can’t pass the grade level test is consigned to failure for nine straight months. A program that doesn’t work must be taught the entire year. And those students must spend every day with a teacher who is demoralized, frustrated, and feeling like a failure while that teacher is simultaneously hamstrung from making the very changes that would lead to improved student performance and higher personal well-being.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of being told to implement a program with fidelity is that teachers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If a teacher judges halfway through the year that the program is ineffective and decides to break from it to help students do better, they risk getting reprimanded (or worse) for insubordination.

If teachers do as they’re instructed — if they play the good soldier and follow their marching orders– but their students don’t succeed, you can bet that the people who decided fidelity was such a good idea won’t be falling on their swords. They will not accept responsibility. They won’t be writing to the Board and explaining that teachers really shouldn’t be held accountable for state test scores because all they did was what they were told to do. They won’t offer to resign from their jobs if a teacher can be scapegoated instead.

The irony of all this is that if a teacher pledged strict fidelity to an unproven program, every administrator would think her lazy and incompetent. Imagine such a conversation:

Admin: How do you assess your students?
Teacher: I give the test included in the program.

Admin: Do those tests give you good information? Do they help inform your instruction?
Teacher: Doesn’t matter. That’s what I’m using. All year. Even with kids that can’t read it. And it doesn’t matter if the tests inform instruction, because I’m just going to open the book and teach what it says to teach anyway.

Admin: What will you do to address the needs of learners who struggle with the content?
Teacher: Probably not much. I’ll look in the program to see if it offers anything that might help those students, but if not, I’m not going to pull from any other resources or use evidence-based interventions unless they’re included in the program.

Admin: What will you do if the assessments indicate that students aren’t learning the content; that your instruction isn’t working?
Teacher: Keep going! I’m certainly not going to investigate other ways of teaching. I’m just going to stick with the program.

Admin: It appears that this program to which you’re so devoted is relatively new. There haven’t been any studies done to determine its effectiveness. Doesn’t that give you pause?
Teacher: First of all, there was a study done.

Admin: Paid for by the company that created the program.
Teacher: Nevertheless. There was a study. Also, it’s Common Core aligned.

Admin: Well, they say it is. In bold colors on the cover of every book. But that doesn’t mean it actually–
Teacher: Yes it does (puts fingers in ears and hums).

So what’s a teacher to do? What they’ve always done when their bosses make bad decisions. Nod their heads, pretend they don’t mind being treated like a cog in a machine, swallow, once again, that bitter taste of disrespect, and then do what’s best for students and hope they don’t get busted.

If you get fired for doing that, at least you can hold your head high, knowing you did what was best for kids. It beats getting fired for blindly following dumb mandates made by people who don’t even have enough respect for the professionals they’ve hired to let them do their jobs.

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Tell us your fidelity horror stories, and feel free to leave other offensive words in the comments.

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Other articles to check out:

Why Student Disrespect Shouldn’t Bother You

Those Whiny Teachers

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

 

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Note: The artwork in the title header was provided by ClipArtsGram.com

The Willful Ignorance of Education Research

You may have seen something on the news about the March for Science held this past Saturday. Demonstrators across the country gathered to draw attention to and criticize lawmakers for ignoring scientific research when making policy. As an educator in America, I wonder what took them so long.

Education Researchers Are Like Teeth

There may be no more thankless job than education researcher. They’re kind of like my ten-year-old daughter’s teeth. She knows her teeth exist and that they do some important stuff, but she really doesn’t pay much attention to them unless someone (her mom) forces her to.

To be an education researcher is to work for years in obscurity, conducting studies, publishing papers, going to conferences, writing books,  and lecturing (I guess. I don’t know what the hell they actually do). If you happen to uncover something consequential, something that could tip the American education system on its head and lead to real, sustained improvement in student outcomes, you get the pleasure of seeing your work completely disregarded.

Can’t Read? Screw You and Your Future!

We have a rich history of pissing all over the work of these dedicated academics.  Why, just a few months ago, my state, Michigan, passed a Third Grade Reading Law that requires the retention of third graders who are more than one year behind in reading as measured by the state test (which doesn’t report a grade level equivalent, so who knows how that’s going to work). Legislators did this despite the fact that hundreds of studies have found no academic benefit to retaining students, and a handful indicate that retention leads to higher drop-out rates.

You’re Tired? Screw Your Stupid Adolescent Sleep Cycle

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends delaying start times for middle and high school students. From this article:

Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents, and a decline in academic performance. But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. – and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.

Only 15% of American high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8:00 a.m. Meanwhile, my third graders, who don’t need the extra sleep, start at nine o’clock every morning. Research suggests that flipping this around would help a lot of kids. But it’s the way we’ve always done things and basketball practice and busing and parents won’t like it, and blah, blah, so screw helping kids and screw the research.

Move! Move, I Say!

If you haven’t heard of John Hattie, you will. School districts really like this guy because, like Bob Marzano, he does “meta-analysis,” which, as far as I can tell, is throwing a bunch of research studies other people did into a pile and performing some fancy math Jiu-Jitsu that spits out a number that’s supposed to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Whatever. Anyway, Hattie ranks about 1,000 different factors that contribute or don’t to academic achievement. At the very bottom of his list is depression, with an effect size of negative .42, which is really terrible, not unlike depression itself. Right above that is mobility at negative .34. Mobility means moving around, changing schools.  You know, the same thing reformers want kids to be able to do through expanded school choice schemes.

Stop Moving! Sit! Sit!

Want kids to learn more stuff? Make them sit in classrooms more, right? And what better way to capture more classroom time than to take away kids’ recess? With greater consequences attached to state assessments, many schools eliminated or curtailed recess time for students, especially following the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Shockingly (he said sarcastically), research does not support such a move.

Research shows that recess in the primary years contributes to physical fitness, improves students’ classroom behavior and focus, facilitates social development and competence, and leads to more learning and achievement.

[Is Your School Cutting Recess? Fight back with research! This book will help.]

 In Computers We Trust

Here’s a blunt headline: Researchers: Don’t expand virtual schools as isTurns out sitting kids in front of a computer and telling them to learn stuff doesn’t work so well. But that won’t stop policymakers from expanding virtual schools. They’re cheap, after all. Reformers like cheap. I mean, they really like cheap. Damn the researchers and their blunt headlines.

The Train Keeps Rolling

Oh, those poor education researchers, toiling away to prove their little theories, only to have them roundly ignored in the places where they matter most.

And yet somehow, despite policymakers’ and school leaders’ willful ignorance, the train keeps rolling. Students learn. They go off to college. They get jobs. The American economy grows. The stock market rises. 401(k)s go up in value. People retire. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, what’s to worry about?

I’m pretty sure my daughter wonders the same thing every time her mom tells her to brush her teeth. Her teeth are fine. They’re white. They’re straight. They don’t hurt. They chew stuff. She eats. She gets bigger. So what if she ignores her teeth?

I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve only scratched the surface. What are other examples of policymakers and school districts ignoring research? Sound off in the comments or on Facebook.