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?

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