From Fundamental fairness
by Joe Thomas
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. You have probably heard this expression before. We all know that it means to avoid disposing of what you intend to keep. As a history teacher, I cannot resist pointing out that this quip comes from a less hygienic period in history when people without indoor plumbing heated their bath water over a fire and bathed perhaps once a week. The head of the household had the privilege of bathing first in the warmer, cleaner water. The rest of the family went in order of seniority until the baby went last.
Hillsborough County schools are in danger of throwing out a lot of babies and I am one of them. Many of Hillsborough county’s best and brightest teachers are getting fed up with the way we are being treated by the Empowering Effective Teachers (EET) program which was imposed upon us last year. EET is something of a pilot program based upon a one-hundred million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The publicized purpose of this program is to refine the professional skills of educators by having a peer regularly review them to ensure they conform to a specific rubric as part of the professional evaluation process. The real purpose is to get rid of incompetent teachers. The problem is that the program as designed tends to target veteran teachers who are highly competent and effective in the classroom, but unwilling to adhere to a single style of teaching. I have been an educator in the Hillsborough County School District for the past 18 years and I have never seen my colleagues as demoralized and upset as I have since the implementation of this flawed program. In fact, it is beginning to feel like a mutiny is brewing.
I strongly believe that teachers need to be professionally evaluated. Incompetent or lazy teachers have no place in our profession and we all know that they are out there. The problems with the EET are not with its purpose, but with its implementation. The first is that the program is attempting to enforce uniform methods on teachers rather than letting them use their experience, professional judgment and knowledge of their students to determine what they do in the classroom. Teachers are trained and certified professionals. Over time, the best and most experienced teachers learn what works effectively for the population that they teach. The method based rubric enforced by the EET program tends to require that teachers utilize certain specific techniques that are in many cases impractical in the real world of education. One example is the necessity to evaluate every student every day. Evaluation of student learning and performance is essential. Having it done on a daily basis is not. As a high school teacher with only a 50 minute class to cover necessary material and allow students time to do research, review, etc. I often find myself using more than one class period to complete a large assignment or project before I evaluate learning. If I fail to do this on a daily basis, however, I am rated as a “developing” teacher or, god forbid, a teacher that “requires action” (as opposed to accomplished or exemplary) in this area. A negative rating such as this would cause a reduction in my professional standing, my pay and eventually lead to termination of employment. This method of evaluation has led to a “dog and pony show” mentality where classroom teachers create bogus lesson plans for the sake of the evaluator, then go back to what they really do for the rest of the year. Is this really an effective method of improving student performance?
The EET also has unqualified teachers evaluating their peers. My current situation is a case in point. I am a High School Social Studies teacher. My assigned evaluator is an elementary school teacher who has no experience at the high school level. There is a great deal of difference between an elementary school student and a high school student. The methods of educating these groups are not the same. Elementary and High School teachers require different educational qualifications and state certifications. I would also add different talents, styles and temperaments. Having an elementary school teacher professionally evaluate a high school teacher is something like having a dentist professionally evaluate a heart surgeon. They are both doctors, but are trained and specialized in entirely different areas. I believe that a teacher should only be evaluated by someone who has experience at their level and subject matter. In fact, logic would dictate that this should be a teacher who is more experienced and qualified than the teacher being evaluated.
There are currently over one hundred and twenty “teachers” employed as peer evaluators. They are not in the classroom and are not educating students in any way. They spend their time driving around Hillsborough County evaluating teachers who are actually teaching students. This costs Hillsborough County over 5 million dollars per year for their salaries alone. This is currently covered by the Gates grant. When that money runs out, it will be covered by taxpayers. Do Hillsborough County taxpayers want to pay the salaries of “teachers” who do not teach? I see the EET as a phenomenal waste of resources. We already have educational professionals who are fully trained to evaluate teachers and do it much more accurately because they know the teachers as well as the students and see both on a daily basis, they are known as administrators.
I would be remiss if I were to vent my complaints without offering what, in my opinion, would be a reasonable solution. First, get rid of peer review completely. Teachers have no business policing other teachers. Evaluations should be done solely by administrators. Second, there should be a different balance in terms of the measurements used. Under the current EET program, a teacher’s evaluation is based on student performance (40%), an administrator evaluation (30%) and finally on the peer evaluation (30%). Student performance should count at least as much as the evaluation of the teaching methods used, if not more. Effective teachers inspire better performance in their students. Finally, the system used to measure teacher performance should give teachers the flexibility to use their professional experience and judgment to create beneficial learning experiences for their students. Increased input from classroom teachers into the process would be a good idea. Evaluative rubrics should reflect the unique requirements of teaching students in different subject areas and at different levels. An 18 year-old senior cannot always be taught using the same methods that would be appropriate to teach a six year-old first grader. A vocational teacher might not effectively utilize methods that would be ideal for a math teacher.
Hillsborough County needs to be careful that in its attempt to rid the school district of incompetents and gain national attention that it does not alienate and anger those professionals who have always worked hard to do a good job and are effective. I would point out that these hard working and effective teachers are by far the majority of teachers in the profession. I would remind the county and its residents that it takes a good five to seven years for a rookie teacher to become effective in the classroom. What is going to happen to the students of Hillsborough County if the veteran pros are driven out? I think it would be best for us all if we kept these babies around.