Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We're Here To Help

Andy Jacob, the "comms guy for @TNTP," disagreed with my characterization of TNTP's classic, "The Widget Effect." A few days ago, I summed up the message with two sentences:

We don't pay teachers differently based on how good they are. We should do that.

Jacob allowed as how he wasn't sure I'd really read the report, and when I assured him that I had, suggested a correction to the drift of my gist.

This "helpfulness" idea is one that turns up often in reformster teacher evaluation plans. "We're just dredging up all this data about your performance," they say, "so that we can help you become a better teacher." Sometimes they would also like to help school administrations make better staffing choices.

Now we could talk about all the subtle clues that "helping" might not be the goal here, such as the repeated complaints that if 70% of students failed the Big Test then it can't possibly be true that 90% of their teachers don't suck. But that's not where I'm headed today.

No, sometimes, when somebody makes a claim, I find it useful to perform a little thought experiment and imagine what the world would like if what they claimed was true was, in fact, true. What do I imagine a teacher evaluation system set up to help teachers would look like.

Wide slices.

The observation portion would not be a single short snapshot. Since this is an imaginary system to help teachers, I'm going to go ahead and imagine a system that would be a huge pain for administrators. I'll imaginarilly help them some other day.

So, more than one visit. And more than formal observations. Plenty of drop in's, drop by's, drive by's, and maybe even some lurking outside my room. Point is, I don't need help figuring out what needed to be tweaked in a single lesson on the third Tuesday of the second month of school. I'm more interested in finding out if there are systemic issues in my classroom, but those issues will only be obvious over time.

Student products.

Take a look at what kind of product I'm getting out of my students. Look at their written work-- does it look like they're achieving in that area. Look at the tests I've given them-- how are they doing on those. And take a longitudinal look-- are they making gains over the course of the year. Hell, go ahead and talk to them-- see if they think they're learning anything.

Yes, you can throw in some standardized test results if you like, but most of those crappy bubble tests designed in far away places by people who don't know me, my students, my community's expectations for education-- those tests have little of use to tell me. Basis for comparing me with some teacher in Palookahville, North Arksylvania? What good does it do me to know whether he prepared his students for a one-time pointless exercises better than I did? It's a one-time pointless exercise.

Handle the results professionally.

If, in the course of observing me, you saw me post grades with names attached on the board, announcing "Look at how many people are better students than Ashley," you would rightfully chastise me (if you would not, I do not want to work for you).

If this evaluation system is all about helping me, then it should be part of a conversation between you and me and nobody else. I do not help Ashley learn about gerund phrases by telling the whole class how much she sucks. I help Ashley by talking to Ashley. You help me by talking to me. It may be more efficient to hand me off to a designated peer coach, but if I'm going to get better, it will be helpful not to be distracted by fear and humiliation.

Support me.

Help me focus on all the ways I can succeed, not all the ways I'm going to suffer if I fail. When you learn to drive a car, you learn to keep your eyes on the road, to focus on the destination you desire. If you get afraid of the tree, and stare at the tree, you will drive directly for the trees.

So let's figure out a a plan for my success, not for my failure.

Don't raise the stakes.

The stakes are already huge. The stakes are my ability to think of myself as a successful teacher, as a person who is succeeding in the career I have chosen for my adult life. I have spent the last umpteen years working toward doing this for a lifetime, toward waking up in the morning and saying, "I am a teacher, and today I am going to make a difference in some child's life."

If I fail at this job, it will not be like the summer I decided I would never be a good telemarketer. I will be devastated.

So threats to cut my pay, hold up my raise, mark me with a scarlet "ineffective"-- these just add insult to injury. These allow me to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, to say, "Yeah, I got better, but not better enough I guess."

I am already hugely motivated. You can't motivate me more-- you can only hurt me. And if I'm not already hugely motivated, you should probably counsel me out. But in the meantime, trying to mess with my pay and my ratings won't make me any more motivated.

If I'm good, recognize me.

Give me a little plaque. Give me some office space. Thanks me. Let me have a little piece of extra responsibility that I can handle on my own in my own way. Recognize me in the way that grown professional humans recognize each other. A performance bonus is-- well, it's not that I can't use the money, but it's kind of like taking a woman out for a date and at the end saying, "You were great honey, and handing her five twenties." It's not exactly flattering.

Stay with me.

Continue the process. Work with me. Check up on me. Help me move forward. Don't just drop an improvement plan on my desk and disappear like smoke. Work with me as if you actually wanted to keep me around.

These ar all things I would expect to see in a teacher evaluation system designed to help me. Help, not threats and punishment. Emphasis on collecting information that tells you how I'm actually doing at teaching (not how I'm doing at being in a room with students who generate good test scores). And no-- I don't mean "multiple measures," because many of the indicators and pictures that show what kind of teacher I am are not measures at all. Saying "multiple measures" for evaluating teachers is like saying we'll use lots of different rulers and tape measures to measure excitement. A whole variety of the wrong tools = the wrong tools.

And support to help me get to where we both want me to be. Those are the things I would expect to see. Do you see those things in refornster teacher eval plans? No, me neither. Not even with multiple measures.


  1. Totally agree! Fantastic, fantastic post! Everyone everywhere should read this!

  2. Look at all the great (and even good) coaches in major sports. They are ll in their 50's and 60's. Why? Because it takes a long time to become a great coach and even if they are fired one place they are rehired at another to reinvent themselves. Why is that? People have to realize that it takes a long time to become a master teacher/coach. What would help the process is to improve the front end and not try to "fix It" at the back end with evaluations. I am sure others have thought and wrote about this but over the 20 years in my journey in becoming a teacher I think I have come up with some solutions to better ensure that quality people go into teaching. However, the current climate needs to change and for sure compensation would need to dramatically improve.

    The short version. Students would go to college and become educated. They would then go out into the world to work and volunteer. After 4 or 5 years or so they would enter a masters teaching program. They would be hired into schools during the day and be paid as a classified staff (I did this on my own by the way -$6.71 hr:( At night they would take your typical classes with the added benefit that they would be able to make connections to their day, and apply what they were learning in school.

    After an intense year there would be an internship and continued class or two at night. then there would be a residency and rotation through various schools, classrooms, and subjects to get a wide range of experiences. They would be paid just as doctors get paid.

    If then hired as a teacher they would get matched with a master teacher(s). Over the year Lit/Math/ coaches would work with these teachers to help them improve. (Principal would be paid less and be there to manage the building and handle discipline - whole nother discussion). The other option would be to substitute for a year or two and then get hired.

    With the increased training and education teachers would gain more respect from society and be able to demand more for what they do and the importance to our society. Additionally, a lot of this talk about evaluations would go away.

  3. Teaching is a practice profession like law or medicine. The corporate reformers constantly throw out useless data and garbage stats to "prove" their nonsense that teaching experience doesn't matter. Does anyone think that if we asked them mano-a-mano if they would admit they believe this nonsense?