Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Brookings Hits the Bathroom Scale

When it comes to amateurs dabbling in education, it's hard to beat the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings. Perhaps it's inevitable that economists want to weigh in education, since economics is another area in which everybody and his brother believes themselves expert.

But Thomas Kane offers some grade A baloney with a side of ill-considered metaphor with "Never Diet Without a Bathroom Scale and Mirror: The Case for Combining Teacher Evaluation and the Common Core."

Given that title, it's only natural that the essay start with this sentence: "Given the nature of the job, school superintendents are master jugglers." So, now I'm mentally watching myself in the mirror as I juggle on my bathroom scales. Kane goes on to let us know that he knows how tough it is to implement new teacher evaluation systems because he headed up the Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching Project.

Kane calls education reform "a massive adult behavior change exercise" that requires us to "change what adults do every day inside their classrooms."

Yet, as anyone who has ever tried to lose five pounds or to be a better parent or spouse knows, adult behavior change is hard work.  And it simply does not happen without regular feedback.  When the current attempts to implement new teacher evaluations fall short—as they certainly will, given the long history of box-checking—we must improve them.  

So, the changes teachers allegedly need to make are analogous to losing fat or being a better spouse.

Teaching to higher standards involves much more complex behavior change than simply putting down one’s fork before dessert.  And it will be more difficult to achieve.  Those who propose “more investments in professional development” as an alternative to teacher evaluation are posing a false choice.  Investing in professional development without an evaluation system in place is like launching a Weight Watchers group without any bathroom scales or mirrors.  

The bathroom scale image is brave, given the number of times folks in the resistance have pointed out that you do not change the weight of a pig by repeatedly measuring it. But I am wondering now-- why do I have to have scales or a mirror to lose weight? Will the weight loss occur if it is not caught in data? If a tree's weight falls in the forest but nobody measures it, does it shake a pound?

This could be an interesting new application of quantum physics, or it could be another inadvertent revelation about reformster (and economist) biases. Because I do not need a bathroom scale to lose weight. I don't even need a bathroom scale to know I'm losing weight-- I can see the difference in how my clothes fit, I can feel the easier step, the increase in energy. I only need a bathroom scale if I don't trust my own senses, or because I have somehow been required to prove to someone else that I have lost weight. Or if I believe that things are only real when Important People measure them.

Kane envisions the Core and new evaluations going hand in hand, leading to more successful implementation of the Core (he does not address the question of why a successful Core is a Good Thing, Much To Be Desired). And his vision of how evaluation will provide a connection to standards as well as the kind of continuous feedback by people who don't know what they're doing and whose judgment can't be trusted.

First, curriculum teams will develop, in conjunction with their supervisors, a specific detailed list of instructional changes to address standards gaps. Then...

Schools should focus teacher evaluation and feedback efforts on the specific instructional changes required for the gap standards.  They should schedule classroom observations for the days when the new standards are to be taught.  They should focus post-observation conferences on the adjustments demanded by the new standards. And they should use student performance on interim and end-of-year assessments—especially on the gap standards—to measure progress and to identify and celebrate successes.  Even one successful cycle will lay the foundation for the next round of instructional improvement.

I'm pretty sure that this requires a team of twelve administrators, none of whom spend any time doing any of the other things required to keep a school running. But there's more, predicated again on the notion that we're trying to help teachers who are absolutely clueless about what they or their students are doing. Notes. Copious notes. Videos. And let's throw in student evaluation and feedback as well (plus, of course, test scores).

Finally, the wrap-up:

The norm of autonomous, self-made, self-directed instruction—with no outside feedback or intervention—is long-standing and makes the U.S. education system especially resistant to change. In most high-performing countries, teachers have no such expectations.  The lesson study in Japan is a good example.  Teachers do not bootstrap their own instruction.  They do not expect to be left alone.   They expect standards, they expect feedback from peers and supervisors and they expect to be held accountable—for the quality of their delivery as well as for student results.  Therefore, a better system for teacher evaluation and feedback is necessary to support individual behavior change, and it’s a tool for collective culture change as well.  

Oh, the assumptions. The assumption that our school culture needs to be changed. The assumption that teacher autonomy is a problem, not a strength. The implication that US teachers don't like feedback or standards or being held accountable-- that's a little snotty as well.

But I am reminded of the management training that suggests that the fewer levels you have between decision making and decision implementation, the better off you are. Kane seems to be suggesting that the classroom teacher needs to be directed from on high, and his ideas are reminiscent of the worker who can't get a project done because he has to keep going to meetings about getting the project done.

My experience is that every good teacher I've ever known is involved in a constant, daily cycle of reflection and self-examination, using a rich tapestry of directly-observed data to evaluate her own performance, often consulting with fellow professionals. It's continuous and instantly implemented, then instantly evaluated and modified as needed. It's nimble, and it involves the professional judgment of trained experts in the field. That seems like a pretty good system to me.


  1. "I only need a bathroom scale if I don't trust my own senses, or because I have somehow been required to prove to someone else that I have lost weight. Or if I believe that things are only real when Important People measure them."

    That comes close to explaining why the Measures of Effective Teaching feel flat-out wrong-headed to me. It's about the so-called neutral outside evaluator, who watches teachers teach. This observation can happen via video--or, as Grover Whitehurst suggests today in a big piece in EducationNext, schools can hire trained evaluators who do not know the teacher to come in with their magic rubrics and clipboards and decide: good or bad?

    Why is this a terrible idea? There's no context. All teaching decisions are "good" or "bad" not based on the action itself or whether the teachers' words and actions result in higher test scores. Only the teacher--or a colleague who knows the kids and content in question--can evaluate teaching decisions. Why does Mr. Smith fail to ask the obvious question? Perhaps he's missing something. But perhaps he knows that a disruption will happen--or knows that the kids already know the answer--or he judges the question as premature, given his previous assessment of kids' understanding. Only teachers can give credible rationales for their teaching decisions. The smartest "outside evaluator" in the world may see things the teacher does not. But that outside evaluator cannot place himself in the teacher's head and examine WHY she makes decisions, look at the cycle of reflection and data over time.

    You can't weigh and measure good teaching, if you're parachuted in. You can't decide whether a teachers' actions are a 1 or a 5. This unwillingness to trust teachers, this false meritocracy, is why the Japanese have lesson study and we have guys like Tom Kane and Grover Whitehurst.

  2. All good points, Peter. What a bunch of malarkey! Kane's article is full of conflation, contradictions, and assumptions based on nothing. I can't follow his "reasoning". We're bad teachers because we have bad habits and we don't want to change. Our bad habits are...teaching to too low of standards. Which is why CCSS is good. So to correct this we have to focus all year on only 2-3 of the new, better standards. And we horrible, lazy teachers are somehow competent enough to come up with unspecified "instructional changes" - strategies? - to change our behavior and teach to these "higher standards". But the teachers who are struggling are the ones "not noticing student reactions" and so not getting the pacing right. Which has nothing to do with "standards". Yet "teachers inherently care what their students think." Aside from what metric he bases this assumption on, if teachers care what students think, won't they notice their reactions? I would think that teachers who don't care what their students think would be the "bad" ones. The whole article just makes my head want to explode.

  3. I had an ambitious colleague who was a fairly mediocre teacher, so his heartfelt wish was to become a department head. When his wish came true (granted by a principal with almost 3 years of teaching experience!) he used his influence to institute "walk-through" observations of other programs. (Mostly, he was nosy.) He came thorough my class and observed a student sitting at my desk, head down, oblivious to the instruction going on around her. In the follow-up, I was called out for 1) violating teacher-student boundaries by allowing the student to sit at my desk and 2) for not insisting she participate. It was also noted that the student was known as a "problem", generally, therefore she needed more explicit supervision. No trust.

    Called upon to explain, I added to the horror by admitting that she did not even belong in my classroom. The fact was the girl's mother had been admitted to the hospital suffering from a serious heart attack. The older sister had sent her to school, blaming her as the cause of the mother's illness. She came to me, fearful, guilty and alone, so I had her sit with me through the morning. Oh! well, I didn't know that! said the ambitious one. No context.

    Of course he could have focused on the lesson that was being taught simultaneously, but he had a checklist, and besides, didn't speak Spanish, the language of instruction. No expertise.

  4. It always seems that the worst teachers become APs (but not always). Common Core...it's not as if we didn't have students identify main ideas or think about different perspectives before. Just a bunch of crap piled upon more crap which means more unnecessary work.

  5. Bathroom scale is non-hygienic and risky too. It also spoil the beauty of a bathroom. Sometimes we need to change the bathroom design by skilled renovators to get a complete new one with inspiration. There are many ways to get our dreaming bathroom also.