Note: A publisher has expressed interest in having me do a book about my finding on the ed reform movement, including what I think productive reform would look like. I’m going to write some stream-of-consciousness drafts and publish them here on the blog, since it motivates me to write when I know it will get instantly read by some people.
I’ve been criticized by some for only writing about what I’m against, and not enough about what I’m for.
There is a good reason for this which I’ll use an analogy to explain: If you have a house and you’d like to remodel the bathroom, but then someone sets your house on fire — you’ve got to direct all your efforts toward putting the fire out before you can concentrate again on remodeling the bathroom.
That’s how I see ed reform right now. There are destructive policies getting implemented all over the country. They are spreading like a disease, and I see it as my job to stop the outbreak.
But, if there were no fire, I’d be advocating for the kinds of improvements that I think would help education in this country. After all, it is in my nature to complain about things, and I certainly would still have a lot to complain about.
For example, I think that math education in this country is completely ‘broken.’ Somewhere along the line math turned into a mindless exercise that is about as useful as learning to speak Klingon. I’d be interested in working on ways to restore math back to the type of things that made Plato make it one of the main subjects of study way back when.
Another thing that I would want to tackle is teacher evaluation. The way it is now is way too neutral. Still, neutral is better than destructive, but it still is pretty neutral.
Though I have not been a principal, I have supervised many student teachers and in that supervision I have done observations while they taught. I have also seen a lot of teachers in my own school teach as I patrol the halls for a few periods every day as a part-time dean. Since I have a lot of classroom experience, I can gauge how good a teacher is in about two minutes of observation. When a teacher is ‘good,’ there is a tangible energy in the room. If I had to quantify some of what that energy is, I could easily make up some metrics: How many students volunteer, on average, each time a question is asked in class? How much ‘wait-time’ does the teacher use after asking a question? What percent of students actively participate in a period? What percent of time in the class is idle? What percent of time is a teacher ‘lecturing’? How efficient does the teacher go over homework? These are things that I, as someone with a lot of experience, doesn’t really ‘need’ to calculate for someone who is doing a good job, but for someone who is faltering, these are some metrics that I could use to help this teacher improve.
If I saw a teacher I felt was ‘good’ based on my observations, I would not really need to see her value-added scores. If a computer told me that a teacher I knew was good was actually bad, I’d ignore it just as I would if a computer told me that Marilyn Monroe was not attractive because of her 10 dress size. I would also ignore a computer that told me that a teacher I knew to be ‘poor’ was actually good because of value-added computations.
One issue we have today with teacher evaluations is that many principals are not qualified to evaluate teachers through quick informal observations. Some principals have never even taught before. Some have only taught for two years. I think this is one of the reasons that people are pushing so much for value-added nowadays. A principal who does not have the ability to get a feel for the quality of a teacher, just by sitting in the class for a few minutes, is more likely to misjudge if a teacher is good or bad. So principal evaluations are the main thing we need — but only if the principals have the ability to do this, which, unfortunately, many don’t.
Another aspect of teacher evaluation is the teacher’s self-evaluation. Though I find it very easy to go into a classroom and quickly point out a teachers strengths and weaknesses, I often think it is ironic that when I am teaching, I often make the same sorts of mistakes that I notice in other teachers. For instance, I often call on just the students who are raising their hands. When I see someone else do this, I think ‘they should be spreading it out a little,’ but for some reason I do this too much since ‘in the moment’ it is hard to cold call on someone when you are low on time and know that it could jeopardize your flow and you may not complete the lesson.
But if you showed me a video of myself teaching, I could easily critique myself. And if the stakes were low, I would gladly make a list of areas I could improve upon. So video taped lessons with self-assessment is something that I would approve of.
Often, today, we hear a lot about how ‘student achievement’ has not been factored into teacher evaluation in the past which is why value-added is a step in the right direction, even if it is not perfect. A favorite expression of Arne Duncan’s is “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” a quote from Voltaire. So because value-added is merely ‘good’ and not ‘perfect’ we shouldn’t abandon it. But who says that it is ‘good’? Right now I’d say it is awful, and I don’t think Voltaire would agree “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the awful.” Incorporating value-added into an evaluation is not the same, I think, as incorporating ‘student achievement.’ If it didn’t have ‘student achievement’ in it before, then it still doesn’t have it.
Now ‘student achievement’ is something that is tough to measure directly. But that does not mean that ‘evidence of student achievement’ which is also an expression I see a lot, can’t be measured. If I were evaluating a chef, would it be possible if I did not (or even could not) taste the food. I think so. If a professional chef watched me as I made my famous cream-of-mushroom mac and cheese, I’m sure that the chef would be able to evaluate my abilities without tasting it.
If a teacher comes on time every day, has a good lesson, and teaches the lesson in an interactive way, allowing time for the students to practice, and then the teacher assesses the class informally and formally, then the students will progress. There is just no way that all that stuff can be going on and the kids are not learning.
Now if you really want more concrete evidence of student achievement, it still can only be done indirectly, though maybe a bit closer to directly. One way to do this would be for teachers to issue a pretest on the topic about to be taught and then a posttest afterwards. This is different than the value-added growth. In value-added they try to figure out based on what kids got on the 4th grade test, what they should get on the 5th grade test with an ‘average’ teacher. To see what the kids actually learned, though, it would be better to give them the 5th grade test in the beginning of the school year (most kids would get nearly a 0%) and then give them the exact same test at the end of 5th grade. Even if a kid failed with a 40%, that would still be 40% of stuff the kid learned. Isn’t this what we do when we learn a musical instrument. First we try to play the piece on the piano and then when we’ve completed our practice we try to play the exact same piece, only better.
Giving a pretest is good practice for a teacher anyway. It is not something I do as much as I should because it takes time away from teaching, but if it was required that I do that for a certain percent of my assessments, I’d be willing to do that for the sake of an evaluation so a principal can see how much my students really learned based on the pretest / posttest comparison.
The better prepared I am, the better my lessons generally go. If there were some kind of easy way for me to submit my lessons for my principal to look at, and also a way for me then to share that lesson with my co-workers, then that would be a system that could be incorporated into my evaluation and also into the collaborative process.
I don’t know how other teachers would feel about this, but I could see a scenario where I wouldn’t object to much of, if not my entire, year being video taped. I know this is an invasion of privacy, but I think it would make me teach a bit better. Certainly I’d teach a little differently, though not necessarily better. The benefit to me would be that maybe those videos can also be used as ‘evidence’ when a student misbehaves. It would be interesting to be able to show a parent the video and then see if that parent still doesn’t believe that her kids threw a pencil at another kid.
What I don’t like about the video is that I might be too self conscious and might not joke around as much. I don’t joke around that much anyway, but there are times where I might spend a few minutes going off on a non-math tangent. This isn’t a bad thing to do if it is done in moderation. But what if someone were to make a montage of all my off-subject ‘riffs’? Well it could easily be used against me. Still, if someone wanted to watch my entire year and the few minutes of riffs were put into context that way, I would not be ashamed that I ‘wasted’ a few minutes as part of making my class a human experience.
Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts about teacher evaluation. Really anything is better than value-added, but that doesn’t mean that evaluations can’t be made more useful for helping teachers improve.