Teacher evaluations questioned despite lack of state guidance

The 2011-2012 marked the first year all schools used the four-tier evaluation system mandated by the Michigan legislature, rating teachers as “highly effective”, “effective”, “minimally effective” and “ineffective” according to an article in the Detroit Free Press. The article cites that 99.4% of teachers were rated in the top two categories, but the non-profit Education Trust-Midwest is not convinced that 99.4% of teachers know what they are doing. The article goes on to say that “the numbers raise concerns that struggling teachers are bot being identified or given training and support they need to improve.”  30 districts were asked for statistics, but only 10 provided them.

Sarah Lenhoff, assistant director of policy and research at the Education Trust-Midwest was quoted in the article saying, “We would expect more variation in how teachers are being evaluated, because we know that behind evaluation is a series of steps that help teachers get better and improve student achievement.” The article goes on to state that legislation requiring the evaluations wasn’t approved until last summer, but required school  districts to evaluate teachers right away, and an actual definition of the terms school districts are required to use won’t be developed until after an ongoing pilot study of the evaluation systems.

In other words, Education Trust-Midwest is criticizing school districts for implementing a state-mandated rubric for a teacher evaluation system using undefined terms that the state refuses to define until they complete studying the evaluation system.

What?

Demanding that school districts evaluate teachers based on a generalized rubric and  undefined terms and then criticizing them for generating a relatively uniform product is a little like criticizing someone for putting the pieces of a bookshelf together in the wrong order based on an exploded diagram that didn’t come with written instructions defining the order the pieces should go together.

How can the state demand teacher evaluations without clearly defining what differentiates a “highly effective” teacher, an “effective teacher”, a “minimally effective” teacher, or an “ineffective teacher”? Why are the evaluations that school districts created based on a loose set of instructions coming under fire for being relatively uniform? Or could it be that Education-Trust Midwest does not believe that 99.4% of teachers are good at their jobs?

After all, it is the belief of Lansing politicians that special education students and alternative education students learn at the same rate and in the same manner as an honors student. If they believe that all students learn at the same rate and should be able to pass the state tests regardless of their personal situations, then by extension they believe that all teachers teach the same way and therefore should be evaluated in the same way.

Therefore, it seems that school districts have given the state precisely what they want: A uniform evaluation system that is applied to all teachers and evaluates them according to the Legislature’s mandated terms. If the state wanted a more varied method of evaluating teachers, they would have written definitions into the law when they passed it instead of choosing to put it off until they conduct a pilot study of the evaluations. Why is it so hard to believe that 99.4% of teachers are considered to be “highly effective” or “effective”?

Teachers falling between the cracks?

“Our findings show that districts keep treating teachers as if they are interchangeable, like parts on an assembly line. This is a disservice to thousands of teachers across the state, who take pride in their work and are eager to get the intensive feedback, training and support they need to improve.  By treating all teachers as if they are the same we are neglecting to recognize high-performing teachers and empower them to be school leaders and mentors; we are missing out on richer data and more actionable feedback to the vast majority of effective teachers to help them improve, and we are not identifying struggling teachers who need extra support and interventions,” Education Trust-Midwest posted on their website.

Aha, the crux of the problem!

Struggling teachers are falling between the cracks in this uniform system because all teachers do NOT teach the same, much like all students do NOT learn at the same rate. More variation of teacher evaluation may discover a larger percentage of teachers who need help, according to Education Trust-Midwest’s argument above.

However, providing struggling teachers the support they need may prove to be more of a challenge than creating a varied evaluation system that better identifies struggling teachers. If you want to use high-performing teachers to mentor struggling teachers, the highly effective teacher would need to teach fewer hours, and use the remaining time to observe the struggling teacher and provide feedback on what could be done differently. Of course, the highly effective teacher would be available to students less as a result and continue to draw their full salary.

Lansing seems unwilling at this point to actually allocate more funding to schools so they can hire teachers or at least long-term subs to stand in for “highly effective teachers” who would be taken out of their classrooms to work with less effective teachers. Until they are willing to provide this funding, struggling teachers will continue to struggle.

Another problem lies in the evaluation system itself. Often, school administrators are required to perform teacher evaluations in addition to their normal administrative duties. Therefore, evaluations tend to be done on a few individual days and are akin to a few snapshots of the daily happenings in the classroom. If you knew your entire job performance was going to be rated based on a few days of work, wouldn’t you put on a show for your boss, too?

Education cannot be effectively evaluated based on a just a few days in the classroom. A good education is the sum total of what happens on every single day in the classroom. Until the state is willing to fund independent evaluators who can afford to spend more time in the classroom observing more of a teacher’s practice than a school administrator, evaluations will continue to be snapshots of a single day’s activities.

Education Trust-Midwest is misguided in their early assessment of the teacher evaluation system. They are basing their findings on 1/3 of the school districts they asked to respond, and are quick to criticize school districts for meeting state requirements based on the state’s lack of meaningful definitions for their own terms. It seems that they would rather the year one evaluations find greater than 0.6% of teachers were rated as “minimally effective” or “ineffective.”

They disguise this belief as concern that there are more under-performing teachers out there than the evaluations have uncovered. They call for intelligent reforms, but seem to forget that the climate in Lansing is decidedly frosty toward giving additional funding to school districts to meet the requirements the Legislature has put in place.

Education Trust-Midwest may better use their time working with politicians to develop a more comprehensive teacher evaluations system that would be more like a motion picture representing teachers’ performance rather than the scrapbook it is. If they are so concerned the system is not properly identifying struggling teachers who are subsequently not getting the help they need, they should be lobbying for independent evaluators and more funding for schools, not blasting school districts for following the state’s lack of direction in evaluating teachers.

Most of all, they should be rejoicing that 99.4% of teachers were found to be “highly effective” or “effective” in year one of the four-tiered system. They should be happy that very few teachers stink at their jobs. Desiring more teachers be rated as ineffective is not how one reforms the education system.

Teachers tired of broken promises, unite! (Society’s Slideshow)

By Dave Palmer

Chicago teachers have decided that they have had enough of broken promises. Their story is gaining momentum in the national media, and is already drawing both criticism and praise.

Those who criticize accuse teachers of not considering the needs of the students, but mostly wonder what they are going to do with their children during the day when they would normally be going to school.

Those who praise the teachers say that it is about time that teachers stand up to school districts and governments that break promise after promise agreed upon in past and present collective bargaining agreements.

“You have a situation where the teachers feel totally and completely disrespected,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union of the striking teachers. In this case, she said she blamed Mayor Emanuel for an aggressive push to extend the length of the school day and for a promised raise that was later rescinded. “He created the seeds of a lot of frustration and mistrust,” she said in an article in the New York Times covering the story.

The raise in question amounts to a 16 percent increase for teachers over four years despite what is expected to be a $1 billion deficit in the system’s operating budget next year. Also at stake is how to evaluate teachers and whether teaching openings should automatically go to laid-off teachers, other issues related to benefits, how to calculate raises based on experience level, training days for teachers, and more, according to the Times.

Republicans were quick to jump in with accusations that the interests of teachers unions were conflicted with the interests of students, with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney saying as much in a statement he released to the press.

However, considering that it is the union’s job to fight for the interests of teachers, it is important to note that the Times stated that teachers spoke of rising class sizes, much-needed social workers, a dearth of air-conditioned classrooms and slow-to-arrive reference books, and the accompanying sense of disrespect. Based on the fact that all of these resources benefit students more than they will ever benefit teachers, it seems that the unions do have the interests of students at heart when they support striking teachers.

Any teacher who is worth their salt will tell you that class size is a huge difference maker in the amount of individual attention you can give students. You only have about 60 minutes to deliver your lesson, answer student questions, and offer further assistance to struggling students. It becomes much easier to divide your time between 20 students (about 3 min. per student if all you did was work with individuals) than if you have 40 students (less than 1 minute per student could be allotted in the same situation). Struggling students tend to fall between the cracks or give up if they feel they cannot get as much of the teacher’s attention as they need to help them understand.

School social workers have been slashed and slashed again in the effort to trim budgets. Teachers are often called upon to act as part social workers in addition to their normal daily responsibilities. If they are assigned an emotionally impaired student, they often do not have the training to deal with that student when he or she has a meltdown, and send them to administrators who are equally ill-equipped to deal with the situation at hand. Normally, that leads to the student receiving less education due to a suspension. In reality, the problem could have been nipped in the bud by a school social worker trained to calm agitated students with little loss of educational time.

Teachers are also required to keep students in the loop with new technology and abreast of the newest information on any subject. This can be decidedly difficult to do when (using my school as an example) you have a Economics textbook that was copyrighted and printed in 1998. Keeping up with new technology is even harder when your school still uses computers with a decade-old operating system.

The teachers in Chicago did not create their district’s deficit, and yet are being asked to forego a promised pay raise to pay for it while working longer hours without additional compensation. They are being told that their jobs are dependent on whether or not their students pass a test that is designed by the state and not based on a teacher’s individualized classroom instruction. True, their instruction is based on state curriculum, but not every teacher uses the same method to get there, and not every student absorbs all information at the same rate.

Imagine if you were a factory floor foreman, and the owner of the factory told you that your job was dependent on whether or not your subordinates could pass a multiple choice test that quizzed them on their job responsibilities, factory safety procedures, and Material Safety Data Sheets for every chemical the factory uses. It wasn’t your responsibility to teach them those things, and yet here you facing termination unless 60% of employees pass the test. Would you consider that to be a fair evaluation of your ability to do your job?

Politicians are doing the public education system a grave injustice by cutting budgets, increasing class sizes, eliminating school support staff, and arbitrarily evaluating teachers based on tests which are teaching students nothing other than how to take a multiple choice test. They point the finger at teachers for not getting their job done, yet continually make it more and more difficult for them to do their job.

This is a time when we need to be investing in schools and education. If we want to raise our worldwide ranking in terms of our performance in math and science, the solution is not making teaching a less attractive occupation for those who are willing to endure the long hours and expensive licensing and educational requirements of becoming and being a teacher.

This nation should build more schools, hire more teachers, and find a fair way to evaluate teachers that also involves evaluating administration, school support staff, and parents alongside their students. We are all in this together, and should all be evaluated together as well.

Kudos to the teacher for demonstrating that sometimes civil disobedience becomes necessary when the deck has been stacked against you. They are showing students how to peaceably organize as is their right under the First Amendment, and at the same time, fighting for intelligent reforms to education that truly put students first rather than blindly cutting budgets in all the wrong places and expecting teachers to pick up the slack.

Politicians must change rhetoric to action on subject of education (Society’s Slideshow)

By Dave Palmer

Many politicians express concern about the state of our nation’s educational system. They say that they want to ensure a great future for today’s generation of students who will become tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, and business executives. Many remedies are proposed, including high-stakes testing, teacher evaluations, and increasing school resources that candidates and incumbents believe will change the system at large. However, when the time comes for the rubber to meet the road, the person in office is often long on promises, but short on actions to back them up. It is time for politicians to bring action to the table in the form of common sense and balanced reforms for our educational system including increased educational funding, evaluations of administrators, evaluations of parents, and evaluations of teachers.

Increased educational funding is a no-brainer in today’s growing school population. Teachers have been forced to endure 10% pay cuts, increased contributions to their health care, and increased contributions to their pension system if it hasn’t already been cut in favor of private 401(k) plans. School districts have been forced to outsource transportation, food, janitorial, and other support services that make teachers’ jobs easier. This is not a plan to attract the best and the brightest to the field of education. The best and the brightest have student loans to pay off, want to buy a house, and start a family, which is decidedly difficult to do on $25,000 a year to start when you have to pay into your own health insurance and retirement out of your paycheck. Teacher pay and benefits must be increased in order to attract the best and brightest to the field, and they must have access to as many resources as they deem necessary to run their classroom effectively.

Evaluating administrators must also be a part of educational reform. Bad administrative policies can seriously interfere with a good teacher’s procedure. Yet, that same teacher is frequently laid off and forced to apply for their job again while the administrator gets to collect their high five-figure or six-figure salary and keep their assistant. If politicians wish to truly reform the educational system, teachers and parents must be allowed to evaluate administrators yearly, and administrators should be dismissed after three bad evaluations in the same manner teachers can be dismissed for three bad evaluations.

Parents should have some nature of evaluation to endure if politicians truly intend to be fair about reforming education. Parents complain about not having enough say in their students’ education, and in the same breath say that they don’t have time to help their child with homework or enforce technology-limited (no Facebook, Twitter, etc.) study or reading time. Teachers should be able to submit to the state an evaluation of parents based on percentage of homework completed. Students should be able to contribute to these evaluations based on how much time they spend studying and how much time their parent spends helping them with homework when asked. Parents could even contribute by admitting their shortcomings on certain subject matter if they feel the need to defend themselves. While there are no punitive measures that would be effective in mandating parent involvement, these evaluations at the very least should be filed with the teacher’s evaluation to provide a more comprehensive view of what a teacher has to deal with on a yearly basis.

Teachers already have to endure evaluations based on high-stakes testing, and administrative whims. While most teachers can pass the administrative whim test, the state-mandated high-stakes testing can easily rate a teacher who has been successful for 15 years running as unsuccessful based on a single year’s test. By the same token, a bad teacher can simply teach to the test until the test, and be rated successful on a regular basis. There is no easy solution for demonstrating that a teacher is either effective or ineffective. Testing should be a part of it, but should comprise a relatively small portion of the overall evaluation combined with administrative, parental, and even student evaluations.

Politicians, whether incumbent or candidate, must bring action to the table in the form of common sense and balanced reforms for our educational system including increased educational funding, evaluations of administrators, evaluations of parents, and evaluations of teachers. Too often, the finger is simply pointed at teachers for failed administrative policies, lack or parental involvement, and decreased funds/resources for their classrooms. To truly reform education, all of these parts of education must be addressed and possibly evaluated to determine where changes are to be made in education. Surely, some politicians will see the potential benefit of expanding the evaluation system for education in order to find a balanced way to reform it.