Julia Steiny: Will Bureaucratic Evaluation Systems Nourish Great Teaching?

Stop. Take a deep breath.

What do we hope to accomplish with America's new fanaticism for teacher evaluation?

Julia Steiny

Other than ridding ourselves of the small proportion of truly wretched teachers – at long, long last! – will these evaluation systems promote excited, avid teaching and learning? Will they rally public support for teachers and their work?

Or will they be yet another exercise in using data to enforce compliance, like No Child Left Behind (NCLB)?

NCLB was a howling success at pushing states and districts to build robust and useful data systems. But then it used the data to focus on failure. It did not disseminate examples of kids and teachers working well and HAPPILY together and, by the way, kicking butt on the numbers – the tests, attendance and graduation rates. It did not promote vibrant, engaged teaching.

Given America's generally simplistic and punitive mindset, we tend to use numbers as bludgeons. In a moment I'll suggest how we might make the numbers more useful. But first let's remember that NCLB's emphasis on meeting-the-numbers-or-bust led to an epidemic of testing scandals. And its achievement gains were impressively modest considering the money and angst that went into getting them.

Evaluating teachers seems to be school reform's new silver bullet. The harsh light of punitive "accountability" is turning to individual teachers.

Mind you, teacher evaluations and data systems are both critical to improving education. Teachers need and deserve rich feedback on their work so they can promote and model life-long learning. Data helps them and their colleagues confirm the fruits of their labor and flag points of weakness.

But the most recent effort, the federal Race to the Top grant process, pushed states to create evaluation systems in which student test scores often count for as much as 50 percent of the evaluations. NCLB set the absurd goal of having all kids 100 percent proficient by 2014. Is this teacher-evaluation 50 percent similarly realistic? Won't these numeric targets for individual teachers just add more heat to the boiling crock-pots that so many frustrated, struggling schools already are?

Furthermore, districts are turning themselves into pretzels trying to apply the state test scores to evaluations of teachers who do not teach tested subjects or grades. "Fair" evaluation systems must apply the rules equally to gym, music, 4th grade and biology teachers. What a lot of work, and for what?

Public relations teams in districts and states are frantically asserting that these new evals will be "formative." They'll provoke rich conversations about teaching. They will not be witch hunts.

I'm dubious. The numbers will get in the way.

Because the real problem of public school evaluations is devising a system that will stand up to a court challenge. No matter how incompetent, teachers have every right to insist their union fight for their jobs. If the case goes to court and the district loses, the whole system is shot down. So just to make evaluations minimally viable, they must be based on objective, verifiable, unquestionable data.

So here's what could happen. Since district administrations are the ones with the data systems, they could generate crisp, easy-to-read data analyses about problem teachers and ask nicely that the unions exercise some quality control.

For example, a GoLocalProv analysis of the Providence School Department data revealed that 37 percent of the teachers were absent 19 days or more. That's over 10 percent of a 180-day year. Furthermore, 11.5 percent were out twice that much time. Start there.

Certain kinds of bad teachers are easily flagged with readily-available data. Union officials could quietly point out that the data strongly indicate that the teacher's not really into his job. Maybe there's a story behind the data. Maybe classroom mold has been making a certain teacher sick a lot. Okay, unions are generally good at helping teachers solve those kinds of problems. But if they find a teacher who persists in abusing sick leave, they could explain that the data make it unwise or unethical to expend union dues protecting him or her.

Think: the American Medical Association and the Bar Association maintain standards for the profession and weed out those who ignore them.

If unions were the ones to show up asking questions about non-controversial data like absenteeism, the ranks of the obviously bad would thin quickly.

The public would applaud. Achievement might rise.

And the stupid reasons for poor teaching would be addressed quickly and discretely. The unions could start shedding their reputation for protecting incompetence.

Union help with removing dead wood would go a long way to defuse the adversarial standoff that bogs down many of our schools. Most importantly, it would free ALL parties for a cooperative conversation about what makes terrific teaching. When the meaning of "quality" is more clearly fleshed out, and adapted to each kind of teacher, THEN we can work on evaluations that will help us be absolutely sure all kids are getting what they need from us.

Without bludgeons.

So much of teachers' daily frustration concerns non-compliance among the kids. They're ill-mannered and disengaged. But brow-beating teachers into compliance with numerical goals threatens to make them as surly and uncooperative as those kids. It's no way to nourish teachers stoking students' appetite for learning.

Which should be the point of teacher evaluations.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
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