A Rock and a Hard Place: Teacher Evaluation

The Rock:

I’m nervous about the new teacher evaluation measures coming down the pike in our state, and always have been. Here, Brad Jupp, a senior policy advisor and former teacher working closely with Arne Duncan, attempts to reassure me last June at an Ed Sector panel discussion that my fears about the skewing of teacher evaluation by highly problematic standardized assessments are unfounded.

It’s been nearly a year since we had that talk, and while I was impressed with Brad’s response, I am still highly skeptical, unfortunately.  My reasons, as it turns out, are literally embodied. They have two names.

The first: Stacey Isaacson.

And the second? President Barack Obama, who responds to a kid’s honest inquiry about the impact of high-stakes testing by taking what appears to be a significant detour from the policies of his own DOE.  For some top-notch reflection and investigative blogging on this deeply interesting and apparently uncensored statement by our President, check out Anthony Cody’s blog. It should give you some serious pause.

The Hard Place:

One of my electronic mentors and inspirations, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, was pink-slipped two weeks ago. Heather, by all measures, is a superlative teacher– a glance at her website will tell you that immediately. Nancy Flanagan, another inspiration, tells her dreadful story in turn. She was pink-slipped too– as Michigan Teacher of the Year. You read that correctly.

Heather, who has the benefit of working as a private section employee before becoming a teacher, kindly explained her take on the situation in an email exchange we had a few days ago.

… I do think that one of the reasons teachers fight so much against other measurements is fear.  Yet coming from the private sector, it’s a way of life.  However, I do believe that a teacher must give back in other ways besides longevity at a district.  Sure, that’s a key element.  But to follow through, what do they do with that expertise? Do they mentor other teachers?  Do they present at conferences?  Do they develop curriculum?  Do they take their knowledge and widen the base of wisdom around them?  We cannot afford to be a profession that shuts its doors and works in isolation.  Seniority represents longevity and longevity is a possible indication of dedication, sure.  But so is giving back your expertise, expanding and growing with the world outside of school.  I think there must be some ongoing evaluation that your practice is growing, that you are trying new strategies as well.

In both Heather and Nancy’s case, The Rock may have saved them both.

Or not.

The Solution?

“The perfect is the enemy of the good”— a mantra you may have heard from ed reformers– is one of those slippery statements that sounds so reasonable, so lovely in its construction, that it’s easy to forget the response of one of the citizens who was confronted with it in my hometown:

Like other critics {of mayoral control}, Glenny Williams worries that change simply for the sake of change could make things worse. “Everybody says, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ he said… “Well, you know: slavery was ‘something.'”

So part one of the solution is not pretty, or elegant, or efficient (lord, I hate that word sometimes). But it’s the only way:

Question. Everything.

However, (part two) there is an undeniable, painful human cost while we do. I think Heather, who speaks from the front lines as one of the wounded, has the last word on that aspect of this mess. Arguably, she seems to have the benefit of a supportive group of co-workers that many other teachers do not. But perhaps that is the very point.

I have gotten enormous support from my administration…  I think they see a direct correlation between what I do outside the classroom as a tool to help me inside the classroom.  I am undoubtedly a better teacher because of what I do.  For that reason, they are hugely apologetic about the pink slip, as if fear that I would somehow blame them…

but as I have said, there is no “them.”

There’s a broken system that can break a person, but as long as we all treat each other decently, none of us will come away from this with anything more than bruises. If we treat each other decently, then we can come to an easier consensus, both teachers and administrators alike, and form a more united front to stakeholders about what is best for our students.

As long as we treat each other decently.

If you think about it, that’s the real bottom line for teacher evaluation, isn’t it.


3 thoughts on “A Rock and a Hard Place: Teacher Evaluation

  1. When you say “as long as we treat each other decently,” who do you mean by “we” in that statement? Teachers? Teachers and administrators? Teachers and politicians? People in general?

  2. I think that’s an intentionally wide net I’ve cast, Clix, although I appreciate the call for clarification. Fear, anger, and cultural conflict are all in major play here on all sides of the debate(check out Bill Ferriter’s latest post for a horrific example)…

    http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/the_tempered_radical/2011/04/new-slide-breaking-public-education-to-pieces.html

    … and they do nothing to solve the actual problems. Nothing.

    I also like the term “decent” because it leaves far more room for civil constructive criticism than such glowing dewdrops of words as, say, “nice.”

  3. Well, with the net cast that wide, I’m afraid I fall into cynic-mode. I just don’t have a very lofty view of human nature. This is why I think socialism is a good idea, in principle, but capitalism is much more likely to work (though it needs to be kept in check by things like corporate taxes, antitrust statues, informational transparency, and oh, maybe UNIONS). Looking through history, one of the patterns that emerges is that in general, treating each other decently is just not something we do. 🙁

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