Last Sunday’s New York Times had an article highlighting the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system being put in place in Tennessee. The system is part of the Race-to-the-Top attempt to drive education reform in the states by dangling federal cash for reforms.
As you read the article, you should begin to realize why “reform” fails and why many people in both the Government Education Complex and Education Transformation* movement find these rules so absurd.
There simply is no way that a federal bureaucracy (or any bureaucracy, for that matter) can devise a unified system of teacher evaluation. There are too many variables, and teachers are correct to be skeptical of this top-down approach to their craft.
For example, the first few paragraphs of the article expose the unworkable nature of the evaluation process.
Steve Ball, executive principal at the East Literature Magnet School in Nashville, arrived at an English class unannounced one day this month and spent 60 minutes taking copious notes as he watched the teacher introduce and explain the concept of irony. “It was a good lesson,” Mr. Ball said.
But under Tennessee’s new teacher-evaluation system, which is similar to systems being adopted around the country, Mr. Ball said he had to give the teacher a one — the lowest rating on a five-point scale — in one of 12 categories: breaking students into groups.** Even though Mr. Ball had seen the same teacher, a successful veteran he declined to identify, group students effectively on other occasions, he felt that he had no choice but to follow the strict guidelines of the state’s complicated rubric.
“It’s not an accurate reflection of her as a teacher,” Mr. Ball said.
What a shock. A principal knows his teachers better than the federalized check list. Wonders never cease.
How about another example?
Principals in rural Chester County, Tenn., are staying late and working weekends to complete reviews with more than 100 reference points. In Nashville, teachers are redesigning lessons to meet the myriad criteria — regardless of whether they think that is the best way to teach. And at Bearden High School in Knoxville, Tenn., physical education teachers are scrambling to incorporate math and writing into activities, since 50 percent of their evaluations will be based on standardized tests, not basketball victories.
Standardized tests for gym teachers?! Again, I tell you with absolute certainty, that you are insane if you believe this type of reform has any hope of success. It is, instead, clear and convincing evidence that I’m right when I say the system is beyond reform.
If physical fitness is important, we ought to realize that things like basketball scores are much better measurements than any written test. Better yet, measure loss of body fat, improvements in coordination, or reduction in times in the 50 or 100 yard dash.
If we must, let us debate whether physical fitness belongs in school. I, for one, think all team sports should be intramural, and not tied to schools, but I realize that attacking America’s addiction to “Friday night lights” is like attacking the minimum wage. I’m right, but I’ll never convince the comfortable and closed-minded.
One last example…
In early 2010, the legislature required that half of a teacher’s evaluation be based on annual observations and half on student achievement data. The following year, the state board of education added specifics: each year, principals or evaluators would observe new teachers six times, and tenured ones four times.
Each observation focuses on one or two of four areas: instruction, professionalism, classroom environment and planning. Afterward, the observer scores the teacher according to the state’s detailed and computerized system. Instruction, for example, has 12 subcategories, including “motivating students” and “presenting instructional content.” Motivating students, in turn, has subcategories like “regularly reinforces and rewards effort.” In all, there are 116 subcategories.
Again, this process, even as defined by an approving reporter, is insane. Step back from the boring and absurd details discussed in this article, you must realize that the entire “teacher evaluation” scheme has been hijacked (again!) by the political force to find more useless make-work for a completely unnecessary class of public employees – school administrators and support staff.
Every district will demand money for 10s of “Director of Subcategory Reinforcement” positions. You can already see the state superintendents’ association lobbying for a vast expansion in administrative payroll.
Lastly, I must give kudos to the Tennessee Teacher’s union representatives. I’m no fan of unions, and their prescription of more money for the failed status quo is completely wrong, but in getting to the point of the evaluation, they have it right.
Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, compared the new evaluations to taking your car to the mechanic and making him use all of his tools to fix it, regardless of the problem, and expecting him to do it in an hour.
“It has been counterproductive to the intent — a noble intent — of an evaluation system,” said Stephen Henry, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association.
This NYT article is yet more evidence that dismantlement of the existing American education system is imperative. It is beyond reform, and this illustration of the insanity of yet more needless centralization should be a warning bell to every legislator and governor. It is destined to fail spectacularly and expensively.
The fact is that measuring student achievement through tests, quizzes and demonstration of content mastery (homework) is still the best way to rate a school and its teachers. This is true of math, physical fitness, and every subject in between. The most elegant, simple, fair, and economic way to do this is to have the state set high, but achievable standards, fund the students directly, and have the money flow to the best teachers, principals, independent schools and education providers.
Such as system will not be perfect, however, there is no way it could fail more people than the current system.
We should immediately stop this march toward centralization, and move rapidly in the other direction. Centralized schemes of teacher training, enrichment, and evaluation should be replaced by radical decentralization. This requires rapid expansion of charters options, school choice, digital courses, and virtual schools. We should begin the process of freeing up individual schools to meet standards as they see fit. We should empower principals and providers while holding them accountable for content mastery.
Lastly, we need to empower parents and citizens by giving them both the clout to shut down failing schools, and allow them to choose from a much wider array of schools and providers. This transformative decentralization should be augmented with education savings accounts that allow parents to find the best option, and save the rest for electives, tutoring, or college savings.
For what this nation spends on “retraining” mediocre teachers and an army of needless administration and support, we could pay the best teachers more, attract better teachers from the private sector, and have money left over for college or training.
America’s education system is insane, and the NYT article proves it. Fund children, not bureaucracies.
*I’ve decided to stop calling myself a “reformer,” as 50+ years of “education reform” have failed. It’s time to dismantle the entire system. Time and money spent trying to save it is wasted, IMO, as every reform is hijacked and perverted by the powers that control the existing infrastructure. This is why the existing infrastructure must be either taken from the system, or de-funded.
**Let me pause for a moment to address the concept of “group learning” as applied to schooling. It’s insane. This is a fad thought up by make-work bureaucrats who think that their attendance at a conference of make-work bureaucrats and unionized teachers should empower them to turn schools into self-help industry seminar hawkers.
My experience with group projects in school indicate that they are universally useless, from first grade up to college. This is not because it isn’t important to be able to work in groups. It is. It is merely that working in groups is something that is much more effectively learned by living life, not as part of a forced curriculum.