A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Maybe Teacher Evaluation Is A waste of Time

I recently had a Facebook exchange with a citizen on the subject of the evaluation of teachers. He was responding to my view that connecting teacher evaluation to student results on high stakes tests is an absurd thing to do for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the student tests were not designed to measure teacher performance. In the citizen’s most recent post, he asked me how I would evaluate teachers. I promised him this blog post as my response.

While much of the education community is hyper-focused on teacher evaluation, to me most of the discussion is directed at answering the wrong question, an all too familiar circumstance. Just as the No Child Left behind Act was premised on the mathematical absurdity that all children could through proper education become above average, the reality is that teaching talent is also distributed on a curve or spectrum. To think that it is possible to have a great teacher in every American classroom is equally absurd, assuming we could define the characteristics of that greatness, something I think is almost impossible to do. The almost fetishistic discussion of teacher evaluation and the policies that have emerged to weed out bad teachers from the profession have been an abject failure, having accomplished little more than the demoralization of countless teachers who put heart and soul into their work.

Were we serious about raising the caliber of members of the teaching profession, we would take steps to actually make teaching more of a true profession, where good practice is determined by those engaged in the practice rather than political people and administrative hacks. We would begin by developing a more clearly defined path to becoming a teacher. In the current model, young people invest at least four years of their lives qualifying to be a teacher before they have anything like a realistic experience of what it is like to actually do the job. Suppose we took young people interested in teaching and in their sophomore college year actually put them in the public schools several days per week, giving them increasing responsibilities as they advanced through their teacher training program. We might even employ them during their junior and senior years, giving them actual responsibilities for students. These years of “clinical experience” would be under the shared supervision of the university and the staff of the public school who would have joint responsibility for certifying them as qualified to teach. Young people completing this program would know if they liked the work and whether they were any good at it. They would also know that people who actually do the job day in and day out think them capable of doing it. How different from the current model where one takes some state examinations, does a few hours of teaching and is declared fit to teach.

A sensible teacher induction process could reduce the number small number of bad teachers we have. Yes we have some, but far fewer than conventional wisdom would have us believe. No one knows about them better than the teachers in the schools where they work. My union experience defending the rights of these people has taught me that most of them really hate the job and feel trapped in it. To be sure they offer elaborate rationales for why things are not going well for them, but when I listen carefully I almost always detect, “I really don’t want to do this job anymore. I never really wanted to. But I’m now trapped in it with no economic alternatives to staying until retirement.”

A system of teacher training like the one I propose would weed most of these people who should not be teachers out. Those who remain will still be of varied abilities and dedication, but they will have already passed muster with people who actually do the job who have observed them under progressively real conditions, unlike the current system where prospective teachers watch teaching for a semester and then do student teaching for another. Once they get a full-time teaching position, I would have them under the direct supervision of the tenured members of the department or school. Most of what I learned about teaching over the years I learned from the teachers with whom I worked. While the administrators who observed me from time to time said good things about my work, I learned almost nothing from those experiences. Like most teachers and performers, self-criticism was a more powerful motivator than that of any administrator. In a system of peer responsibility that very common quality of being self-critical combined with the pressure to conform to a departmental or school consensus on the work to be done is far more likely to influence teacher practice than the current system that confuses supervision with scrutiny.

So much time money and rhetoric expended about how to rank teachers. People are evaluated on every job, people will say. I suspect it’s largely a waste of time in most places.

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