Sweeping generalizations and false assumptions about teachers

From the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, By Carol Burris

As a high school principal, it is my job to evaluate teachers. I take this responsibility very seriously — it helps ensure that our students receive the rich opportunities to learn that they deserve. With strong teachers, evaluation may entail reaffirming good practice, supporting innovative practice and facilitating ways for them to share their expertise with their colleagues. For novices or those who struggle, we work to improve their practice and, when necessary, to counsel them out or let them go.
  It is because instruction is so important that the sweeping generalizations and false assumptions that have fueled recent teacher evaluation policies are of such concern to teachers and school leaders alike.  The waves of misinformation about evaluation undermine confidence in our schools and result in “solutions” based on opinion and gut-level hunches, not research evidence. The recent Phi Delta Kappan opinion piece, entitled “Million Dollar Baby,” is an example of the misguided critiques that appear all too often.
Let me begin by saying that I have always been a fan of the Kappan, which skillfully takes scholarly research and makes it accessible to educators who do not have time to pore over academic journals. Despite that fine track record, the generalizations that form the argument in this month’s editor’s note cannot go unaddressed.   It is time to get the record straight and address three common fallacies that dominate the new rhetoric on teacher evaluation:
 1.     1. Every former teacher evaluation system was the same and that unitary system was terrible. To quote from the opinion piece, “Unfortunately educators must bear the bulk of the blame for allowing such a lousy system to exist.” In reality, there was never one evaluation system nor was every system “lousy.” Rather, each school district has had its own system of teacher evaluation, and some of those have been better than others. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t have substantial room for improvement. But it does mean that it’s ridiculous to start a reform discussion with the contention that all districts should abandon their evaluation system regardless of its track record. I would wager, for instance, that Kappan’s editor would agree that the Montgomery County Maryland School System has a nationally acclaimed system, and that Cincinnati Schoolshad a system, before Race to the Top, that has been shown to not only improve the craft of teachers but to increase student achievement. Neither system incorporated test scores. In the small districts on Long Island, most of us did an excellent job evaluating teachers—dismissing probationers who do not merit tenure, helping teachers continue to develop, working with and counseling those who needed to improve or to leave the profession, and building on the strength of even our most expert practitioners.  Among Long Island principals, you will find few fans of New York State’s new evaluation systems, based on APPR.
  2  2. Tenure is the problem. It is a job for life and it is unique to teaching. The Kappan editorial states that tenure is one of the “unique privileges that teachers enjoy.” But in truth due process before dismissal (tenure) is not unique to teaching. In fact, it is more difficult for a principal to dismiss a custodian due to civil service protection than it is to dismiss a teacher. Civil servants enjoy seniority rights, probation periods, salary schedules, and due process rights for dismissal just like teachers. Civil servants, who are broadly defined as those who work for government, include librarians, police officers, firefighters, transit workers,  secretaries, and accountants.  Due process should not be understood or practiced as a “job for life,” but it should remove the threat of political or arbitrary dismissals.
 There are excellent reasons for such protections. The civil service was established in the late 1800s because prior to its establishment, government jobs were given to political supporters as spoils. The protections were put into place to make sure that public employees were hired on merit and could not be dismissed on the whims of the incoming administration. This remains a concern. Public schools are run by politicians—in some cases by mayors, in other cases by elected boards of education.
 As an alternative to tenure, the Kappan editorial suggests that teachers “should receive a contract for a limited period of time, say three or five years”.  Although this may sound reasonable, consider the clear consequences. Without the protection of tenure, educators could be dismissed for not pleasing the interests of powerful parents. They could be dismissed in order to bring in friends and relatives of newly elected mayors or board members.  Teachers could be pressured to pass students who did not deserve to pass a class or be pressured to not discipline a student when warranted. Presently, there is one person in every district who works on a renewable contract: the superintendent. Nationally, the average time that a superintendent stays in a district is seven years. For an urban superintendent it is fewer than three years. And the constant turnover of superintendents does not serve students or schools well.  Tenure promotes stability and community in our schools.  Teacher turnover, even when it is the less effective teachers who leave, has a negative effect on student achievement. Likewise it has been found that churn in the principalship is not good for schools. Such instability does not  promote excellence and the courage to make the tough decisions that are not politically popular but serve the best interests of students. Again, this isn’t an argument against pursuing ways to streamline the dismissal process; it’s an argument against poorly thought through changes.
 3.    3. High-stakes evaluations are fine as long as they do not rely on a single measure This is the new popular rhetoric. It is a partial acknowledgement of the many problems associated with using students’ test scores and growth models in teacher evaluations, problems that have been repeatedly documented. And yet the Kappan editor and others still insist on the inclusion of students’ test scores in teacher evaluation. Multiple measures are indeed wise, but the effects of including any given measure need to be understood. Current policies do in fact place test scores in a prominent role, one for which they are not valid or reliable and because of which school districts can expect to be (justifiably) challenged in court by dismissed teachers (as explained in another article in the same November issue of the Kappan). The troubling reality is that these policies will promote teaching to standardized tests and a narrowing of the curriculum.  
 The editorial suggests that we also include other untested ingredients, such as student surveys, in the evaluation mix. We should do this, apparently, even though there is as of yet no reliable research base to support the idea. As a high school principal, I thoroughly enjoy working with teenagers. I find their opinions to be frank and refreshing. But I do not think it is fair or wise to give 14 year olds a formal role in teacher evaluation. It is bad enough that we are undermining the student-teacher relationship by basing evaluations on those students test scores.
 The magazine’s editor concludes by asserting that “every classroom should have excellent teaching every hour of every day.” I would add that every child should also have an excellent parent who serves them excellent food and provides them with an excellent home in an excellent neighborhood. Let’s also add excellent healthcare and excellent supervision every hour of every day as well. If we could accomplish all of that, we would have the highest achieving students on earth. But the rhetoric itself accomplishes little. What we need are research-based policies supported by lawmakers willing to provide the necessary resources.
 In the meantime, while we wait for those wise lawmakers to emerge, perhaps we all could back off and allow teachers to enjoy the same humanity we seem to graciously grant to others. Teachers aren’t perfect, but I must tell you that nearly all of the teachers that I have met over the years are darn good at what they do. And the variation in their skill is no wider than the variation that I have observed in other professions whose evaluations we never seem to discuss. Let’s look to improve evaluation systems as well as other parts of our schools. But could we stay within reasonable bounds of critique based on fact and research? If we do not stop this constant drumbeat of criticism there will be no one left to evaluate with our new excellent-every-hour-every-day evaluation systems.

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