The Insanity of Federalized Teacher Evaluations

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.

18 thoughts on “The Insanity of Federalized Teacher Evaluations”

  1. The ultimate judges of a teacher’s performance should be the parents of the students. They need to ask, is my kid learning?

    As the parent of 5 children who have gone through the California public schools (one left!), I can’t speak highly of them. Even the son who studied economics at UC Santa Cruz seems to forget the principles of economics at times!

    I thought my education in the public schools in the Panhandle of Florida was better.

  2. Just from observation and introspection, I’ve decided that no bureaucratic system has a hope in hell of identifying good teachers and rewarding them. They should, however, be able to rise to the considerably easier task of identifying bad ones and sacking them. I therefore greet your story with dismay – some bureaucrats are so dim that they can’t even manage that simple task.

  3. I’ve posted my response to Bruno’s original post at [1] becasue it is held in moderation here.

    Whitehall, a major problem is that low-performing parents are content with low-performing children, and mid-performing parents are content with mid-performing parents. That might not be in our national (security) interest.

    Dearieme, quality control of workers is a task perfectly suited to a bureaucracy, provided there is an objective measure of quality and incentives to maintain & improve quality.


  4. To tdaxp,

    You write: “low-performing parents are content with low-performing children …”

    This seems possible. What is your evidence?

    Also, the quality of institutions is often set by the most knowlegable customers. Accountable schools would have to satisfy high-performing parents to remain competitive, and the children of low-performing parents would benefit anyway.

  5. O/T – but Second City Cop is stressing about the upcoming G8/NATO summits in your fair city.

    Here’s the email for all your questions.

    Do have fun. And do warn your sex workers to brace themselves, and hotel staff to be chaperoned, Rights of the Lord and all that.

  6. Hey Andrew,

    There’s research on how social class is ‘taught’ you can find, but I think the best generalized argument comes from prospect theory:

    Parents of all levels are risk-adverse when it comes to their children while also considering their own lives as normal. That is, they are “protective.” Thus, at every social class, we should expect the parents want to install in their children the tools that will make them successful at their current class, while being skeptical of novel teaching methods that might help raise their class, but also might help lower it. So we would expect….

    * Working class parents to demand that schools instil the values of punctuality, conformity, and loyalty
    * Middle-class parents demand that schools successfully prepare students to pass 100 and 200 level college classes
    * Upper-class parents demand that schools make their children cosmopolitan (field trips to galapagos, friends of the upper-crust of many different societies, etc).

    Additionally, each level wants to avoid their children being mis-identified as members of a lower class, so will eschew socialization with members of lower classes. “White flight,” the exodus of middle-class parents once a system of segregationg low-class chidlren from formerly middle-class schools is an example of this.

    Add in the correlation between time orientation and class, and you’ve gone a long way to breaking class mobility if you make it easy for low- and middle- class parents to decide the fate of their own children.

    The quality of institutions is heavily dependent on geography. On the right, Charles Murray has discussed this in his book, ‘Coming Apart.’ On the left, Elizabeth Warren has talked about the same thing. as part of the ‘two-income trap’

    Hi Elf,

    Money, power, and child-care exatly are the three major dimensions of force in the education reform debate [1]


  7. I remember when my wife was teaching in an east Los Angeles school in 1962. Her principle sat on the interview committee so he could pick the best potential teachers from the new grads who were interviewing and recruit them for his school, which had a majority of Spanish speakers. There was no union. The teachers loved working and the parents appreciated the teachers. What happened ?

    Unions !

    She went back to teaching about 20 years ago after a layoff from a bank. She was appalled. The teachers hated the kids and made fun of them. The parents were apathetic. It was a typical union shop.

    With unions, I don’t think reform is possible. I took my five kids to private school. Two are lawyers. One is a grad student, One is a senior at U of Arizona and one is a fireman.

  8. I think Bruno’s post accurately captures many of the forces at play in the education reform debate. I also think it reflects the view of someone very empathetic to teachers who is obviously very frustrated by the insanities of the system. Finally, it appears we are both addressing this issue systematically — Bruno’s use of the term ‘Government-Education Complex’ is clearly similar to the one I use, ‘Federal-Academic Complex’ [1]

    For this comment, let me highlight some of Bruno’s major themes, and say where I think he is exactly right, and share some thoughts about the broader context.

    Bruno is correct that the States are part of a coalition against Teachers and Districts. Another part of this, though, is that Teachers have been using Districts to support their own welfare at the expense of other stakeholders, while simultaneously not being empathetic to the needs of those other stakeholders [2]. State and District quality can both differ in quality, but there are reasons why Districts are now weak and States are strong.

    With regard to gym teachers, Bruno’s correct that physical health is probably not best measured by standardized test scores. The context makes it appear, though, that it’s math and writing skills, not physical fitness, which are being measured through standardized tests. This isn’t odd at all — Google famously ties all employees compensation into the success of Google+ — that is just a clear way of signaling what the top (reading and writing) and lesser included (physical fitness) priorities are. These priorities may be right or wrong, and they may be being evaluated well or poorly, but prioritized evaluation is not insane.

    Bruno is right to say the education reform movement has been hijacked by the states, if by this he means the states are one of many stakeholders in education reform. Others are parents and employers. [3] Being empathetic to the desires of someone else is a basic way of getting what you want. The states want to divert power away from teacher-led Districts, parents want their children not to fail at life, and employers want the American population to be employable. This is a great part of the coalition that is pushing education reform.

    Bruno is right in citing the teachers union, who points out that we evaluate mechanics by outcomes but teachers (increasingly) thru process. The reason is two fold: currently we don’t evaluate teachers at all except in cases of gross neglect, and we don’t pay teachers enough to attract professionals into the field [4]. A process-focus evaluation system makes sense if you have abandoned the hope of attracting high-killed individuals into the field. If you believe you can attract — and pay — high skilled individuals, then you should pay them like professionals [5].

    I completely agree that money should follow success in the education system. Right now it doesn’t, and one reason is that it is hard to measure success. The construction of a testing infrastructure is necessary for such a future to be created.

    I do not agree, however, with Bruno’s proposal for radical decentralization. Such an outcome would be politically unsustainable and, from a national security perspective, dangerous. Low-performing populations easily fall into a ‘steady state’ whereby poor and mediocre districts provide jobs for teachers, daycare for parents, etc., and so please all local stakeholders: but still produce unemployable mouth-breathers who birth more kids and just repeat the cycle. A similar steady-state emerges for medium-performing populations. The reason is that parents are generally risk-adverse, and are happy as long as the child’s outcomes is not noticeable worse than what ‘should’ be.

    From a national security perspective we need to stop this weird system where our critical infrastructure is designed, built, and run by foreigners because we can’t produce employable citizens. [5] Radical decentralization just cements our current outcomes in place.

    Dismantling the entire system just won’t happen — it is like attempting to roll-back the national income tax or direct election of Senators. There is much about society I would change if given the divine power to do so, but that does not mean those goals are actually achievable.

    I wanted to add some thoughts about group learning. My thoughts as a student were identical to Bruno’s here — my thoughts now are quite different. Group learning is described in a fuzzy, nonsensical manner by teachers, because it is sold to them in a fuzzy, nonsensical manner. American schools, while academically awful compared to Chinese ones, are brilliant at training for leadership positions. Group learning teaches future leaders how to manipulate the less-productive into getting out of the way, and trains how-performing workers into how to recognize each other. It’s a form of battle school, and the fact that it takes place in schools (as opposed to the real world) means that it occurs before social sorting has taken place.


  9. I have some possibly strange theories about this. The teachers and the police are an essential service for any modern state.

    As they are both crucial to the functioning of your state and it’s improvement over time why not acknowledge their importance.

    From my way of looking at the situation it seems that both the police, they carry guns and can seriously affect your life, and teachers who teach your most precious possession are seriously underrated from a societal perspective and under paid.

    In my world police would be as qualified as any psychiatrist, trained for as long and paid as well or better. It would require a total rethinking of the present situation and would move police from hired thugs mostly occupied with protecting the rich to respected professionals.

    Teacher are perhaps more important to society. It may be useful to require a much better education and treat them as trusted professionals too. Pay them well and treat them as elite instead of your current general scorn. If you move them to a status that respects their profession and demands excellent qualifications you can raise them to management and instead of unions, which does seem to be problem in your adversarial society, they can have professional associations which in general have quite different goals and are usually cooperative with management ideas.

    Both these professions would then attract a very different and much more qualified group of people.

  10. Tdaxp and I clearly need to record a few podcasts on this issue.

    1. “Radical decentralization” is still the only potential solution to the problems highlighted by tdaxp. As a thought experiment, imagine every public school in the US is reduced to rubble tomorrow morning.

    Under such a scenario, there is no way the nation isn’t better educated one year later. Humans are aspirational, even if they don’t consciously know it. Today’s centralized system destroys aspiration. Thus, we must destroy the system before people once again begin to aspire.

    2. Radical decentralization happened post-Katrina. We simply need to manufacture support blowing up the existing system. I agree that isn’t easy, but it is possible.

    PenGun mistakes the need for a police force with the need for an education force. We don’t need the latter. If it disappeared tomorrow, most people would still get educated.

    While I realize that there is huge amount of work to connect the dots, the fact remains that anything you learn in any school is available for free on YouTube, I-Tunes University, or any other set of content providers.

    It is the edifice of education that is the anachronism.

  11. PenGun mistakes the need for a police force with the need for an education force. We don’t need the latter. If it disappeared tomorrow, most people would still get educated.

    OK, but you’re making the same mistake. If the police disappeared tomorrow, people in most places would self-organize a replacement.

  12. Kirk,

    I see your point, but there are good moral and social reasons for government to have a “monopoly” on the use of force. (police, courts and prisons)

    While some might say there is an argument for a government monopoly on educating the populace, the case is getting weaker by the day. Let the government fund it, but allow it to be privately produced and chosen.

  13. Bruno,

    Thank you for your replies, both here and at my blog. [1]

    Humans are aspirational. That doesn’t mean they have future time orientation, or are market-oriented, or willing to value potential gains as dearly as potential losses.

    Something like the top quintile of students learn as much during summer vacation as during an academic quarter. Presumably some large chunk of those would be able to learn more without school than in it.

    My father-in-law actually got to experience such a system, where schools were closed and kids were on their own. Objectively, I think he benefited. But that generation as a whole didn’t.

    What did Steve Jobs say? “Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education” [2] Yeah, something like that. “Equality” is important. ;-)


  14. Bruno is quite correct that radical centralization of American education is afoot, largely to justify sweeping changes that will redirect a large percentage of public revenues into the few hands of a contracting class and a set of favored testing companies.

    If the testing requirements seem insane, it is because a plausible formula is politically required to justify suddenly terminating large numbers of teachers for no reason (except to hire new ones at low wages) and continually manipulating a complicated testing and evaluation process is a relatively opaque way to do that. New York state is trying to implement the most abusive model of this approach and mayor Bloomberg has blurted out that he wants to fire half of all teachers (apparently regardless of their evaluations under the new system he has fought for).

    Here, for amusement purposes, is Illinois “non-regulatory guidance”
    on changing teacher evaluations (non-regulatory regulations?):

  15. “Bruno is quite correct that radical centralization of American education is afoot,…”

    If Bruno and Zenpundit are both correct, then radical decentralization is not the answer, because it seems to me that those for radical decentralization are going to use the “few hands of a contracting class and a set of favored testing companies.” to bring about decentralization. In other words, those for decentralization are going to shift resources to those in favor of centralization.

    It will be like when corporations used the cheap workforce of lessor nations to increase profits. Corporations knew how to bust unions, by paying a living wage, but decided to outsource the workforce to cheap labor in the name of globalization.

    The outcome was the destruction of much of the middle-class (labor force and in education) and the increase of both “he who hath” (radical centralization) and “he who hath not” (radical decentralization), at the expense of the USA’s Bill of Rights and the pursuit of happiness.

    As for “a major problem is that low-performing parents are content with low-performing children, and mid-performing parents are content with mid-performing parents.”, maybe they are not so much content, but it’s all they know, and all the energy they have to spare. Whose fault is that, Gods?

  16. Radical decentralization represents culture, while radical centralization represents structure,and culture eats structure:

    Culture are opposing forces, where one is pushing against the other, and the one with more force wins. Structure is created out of the resultant force created when those opposing forces are aligned perpendicular to each other, by some logic.

    You see, the opposing forces are actually frictional forces, which takes a normal force to control the amount of friction between them. When you radicalize centrally, it is the normal force that ultimately gets radicalized, so you lose control of friction, and shrink culture–when you radicalize de-centrally, it is the resultant force that gets radicalized so you lose, or gain structure, dependent on resiliency.

    If both go radical then you not only lose control of friction, but lose on resiliency, because culture is what creates resiliency in the first place, because of the logic.

  17. Think of this in the terms of war. War starts out with two (or more) structures pushing against each other. The Greeks did this better than anyone, and the Romans did it better than the Greeks.

    Let’s take Afghanistan as an example. The Bush administration were mostly oil men that knew Arab’s structure. They knew almost nothing about the culture of Afghanistan. So as our armies met, there was almost no normalizing force to speak of, it was almost all push and pull, as friction built.

    What the Bush administration didn’t know, Afghanistan was the center of a religious movement, they only knew (perhaps that is giving them too much credit) that Mecca was the center of a religion. Afghanistan was a moment of inertia, to Mecca’s center of gravity.

    The Bush administration knew what a center of gravity looked like, because it has structure (at least in Mecca), but they had no idea what a moment of inertia was, because, as pictures coming from Afghanistan can attest to, Afghanistan has almost no structure.

    Of course the difference between a center of gravity and a moment of inertia is striking. A center of gravity has forces that move towards a single center, either outward or inward, while a moment of inertia has a z-axis that moves, potentially, into another dimension.

    A center of gravity is structurally (dimensional) significant, while a moment of inertia is culturally (spatially)significant. Afghanistan is, because of where it is.

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