Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Message to Parents: Stop Trusting Your Neighborhood Teacher at Your Own Peril

Art Conversation
This is a message to parents, especially parents who send or plan to send their children to public schools as I do. National and state educational policies and practices are systematically replacing trust in public school educators to make decisions with strict and inflexible control edicts.  The result? Limited decision-making, reduction in the arts by overly valuing reading and mathematics, and inappropriate and irrational evaluation systems are destabilizing schools and will result in narrowed curriculum and reduced learning.  One only has to look at what is happening in Tennessee to shudder, while recognizing that what is happening there is heading soon to the state where you live. 

In a New York Times  article by Michael Winerip, he characterized Tennessee's teacher evaluation process as a method that leads educators off a cliff.  Parents, what you need to understand is if your principals and teachers are falling off the proverbial cliff, so too are your children.

A simple truth is that all educators must be able to make decisions, even faulty ones. To remove decision-making from teachers and principals is to establish systemic failure.  It would be akin to not allowing doctors to make diagnoses for fear they make make errors.  Complexity in many ways requires error.  To be an educator is not an exercise in perfection, something the State of Tennessee seems to have forgotten.  Educators' work is predicated on the complexity of tasks involving relationships, curriculum, pedagogy, learning environment, and assessment. It requires a multitude of decisions.

In Tennessee

As a result of *winning* the Race to the Top grant from the USDOE, Tennessee had to develop and implement a new teacher evaluation process that involved direct observation of teachers four or six times a school year depending on the status of the teacher using a State-developed 6-page rubric and calculation of state assessment results into teacher and principal annual evaluations. Will Shelton, a principal in a Tenneesse middle schools is reported in the NY Times article as saying:
“I’ve never seen such nonsense,” he said. “In the five years I’ve been principal here, I’ve never known so little about what’s going on in my own building.” Mr. Shelton has to spend so much time filling out paperwork that he’s stuck in his office for long stretches.
The new rules, enacted at the start of the school year, require Mr. Shelton to do as many observations for his strongest teachers — four a year — as for his weakest. “It’s an insult to my best teachers,” he said, “but it’s also a terrible waste of time...
Michael Winerip concludes:
The state is micromanaging principals to a degree never seen before here, and perhaps anywhere. For example, Mr. Shelton is required to have a pre-observation conference with each teacher (which takes 20 minutes), observe the teacher for a period (50 minutes), conduct a post-observation conference (20 minutes), and fill out a rubric with 19 variables and give teachers a score from 1 to 5 (40 minutes).
He must have copies of his evaluations ready for any visit by a county evaluator, who evaluates whether Mr. Shelton has properly evaluated the teachers.
Below is a copy of the Tennessee rubric.  An observation may be 15-minutes or a full period and the same instrument is used.  To score at the top of the rubric (score of 5 as opposed to a 3 or a 1) the following must be observed and documented.

Tennessee Teacher Evaluation Rubric (Score Point 5)
Standards & Objectives
  1. All learning objectives and state content standards are explicitly communicated.
  2. Sub-objectives are aligned and logically sequenced to the lesson’s major objective.
  3. Learning objectives are: (a) consistently connected to what students have previously learned, (b) know from life experiences, and (c) integrated with other disciplines.
  4. Expectations for student performance are clear, demanding, and high.
  5. State standards are displayed and referenced throughout the lesson.
  6. There is evidence that most students demonstrate mastery of the objective.
Motivating Students
  1. The teacher consistently organizes the content so that it is personally meaningful and relevant to
  2. The teacher consistently develops learning experiences where inquiry, curiosity, and exploration are valued.
  3. The teacher regularly reinforces and rewards effort.
Presenting Instructional Content
  1. Presentation of content always includes: visuals that establish the purpose of the lesson, preview the organization of the lesson, and include internal summaries of the lesson; examples, illustrations, analogies, and labels for new concepts and ideas; modeling by the teacher to demonstrate his or her performance expectations; concise communication; logical sequencing and segmenting; all essential information; no irrelevant, confusing, or non-essential information.
Lesson Structure and Pacing
  1. The lesson starts promptly. 
  2. The lesson's structure is coherent, with a beginning, middle, end, and time for reflection. 
  3. Pacing is brisk and provides many opportunities for individual students who progress at different
    learning rates.
  4. Routines for distributing materials are seamless.
  5. No instructional time is lost during transitions.
 Activities and Materials
  1. Activities and materials include all of the following: support the lesson objectives; are challenging; sustain students’ attention; elicit a variety of thinking; provide time for reflection; are relevant to students’ lives; provide opportunities for student-to-student interaction; induce student curiosity and suspense; provide students with choices; incorporate multimedia and technology; and incorporate resources beyond the school curriculum texts (e.g., teacher-made materials, manipulatives, resources from museums, cultural centers, etc). 
  2. In addition, sometimes activities are game-like, involve simulations, require creating products, and demand self-direction and self-monitoring. 
  1. Teacher questions are varied and high quality, providing a balanced mix of question types: knowledge and comprehension; application and analysis; and creation and evaluation.
  2. Questions are consistently purposeful and coherent. 
  3. A high frequency of questions is asked. 
  4. Questions are consistently sequenced with attention to the instructional goals. 
  5. Questions regularly require active responses (e.g., whole class signaling, choral responses, written and shared responses, or group and individual answers). 
  6. Wait time (3-5 seconds) is consistently provided. 
  7. The teacher calls on volunteers and nonvolunteers, and a balance of students based on ability and sex. 
  8. Students generate questions that lead to further inquiry and self-directed learning.
 Academic Feedback
  1. Oral and written feedback is consistently academically focused, frequent, and high quality.
  2. Feedback is frequently given during guided practice and homework review. 
  3. The teacher circulates to prompt student thinking, assess each student’s progress, and provide individual feedback.
  4. Feedback from students is regularly used to monitor and adjust instruction.
  5. Teacher engages students in giving specific and high quality feedback to one another.
Grouping Students
  1. The instructional grouping arrangements (either whole class, small groups, pairs, individual; heterogeneous or homogenous ability) consistently maximize student understanding and learning efficiency.
  2. All students in groups know their roles, responsibilities, and group work expectations.
  3. All students participating in groups are held accountable for group work and individual work.
  4. Instructional group composition is varied (e.g., race, gender, ability, and age) to best accomplish the goals of the lesson.
  5. Instructional groups facilitate opportunities for students to set goals, reflect on, and evaluate their learning.
 Teacher Content Knowledge
  1. Teacher displays extensive content knowledge of all the subjects she or he teaches.
  2. Teacher regularly implements a variety of subject specific instructional strategies to enhance student
    content knowledge.
  3. The teacher regularly highlights key concepts and ideas and uses them as bases to connect other
    powerful ideas.
  4. Limited content is taught in sufficient depth to allow for the development of understanding.
Teacher Knowledge of Students
  1. Teacher practices display understanding of each student’s anticipated learning difficulties.
  2. Teacher practices regularly incorporate student interests and cultural heritage.
  3. Teacher regularly provides differentiated instructional methods and content to ensure children have the opportunity to master what is being taught.
  1. The teacher thoroughly teaches two or more types of thinking: analytical thinking, where students analyze, compare and contrast, and evaluate and explain information; practical thinking, where students use, apply, and implement what they learn in real-life scenarios; creative thinking, where students create, design, imagine, and suppose; and research-based thinking, where students explore and review a variety of ideas, models, and solutions to problems.
  2. The teacher provides opportunities where students: generate a variety of ideas and alternatives; analyze problems from multiple perspectives and viewpoints; and monitor their thinking to insure that they understand what they are learning, are attending to critical information, and are aware of the learning strategies that they are using and why.
Problem Solving
  1. The teacher implements activities that teach and reinforce three or more of the following problem-solving types:  Abstraction, Categorization, Drawing Conclusions/Justifying Solutions, Predicting Outcomes, Observing and Experimenting, Improving Solutions, Identifying Relevant/Irrelevant Information, Generating Ideas, Creating and Designing.
Instructional Plan
  1. Instructional plans include: measurable and explicit goals aligned to state
    content standards; activities, materials, and assessments that: are aligned to state standards; are sequenced from basic to complex; build on prior student knowledge, are relevant to students’ lives, and integrate other disciplines; provide appropriate time for student work, student reflection, and lesson and unit closure; evidence that plan is appropriate for the age, knowledge, and interests of all learners; and evidence that the plan provides regular opportunities to accommodate individual student needs.
Student Work
  1. Assignments require students to:organize, interpret, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information rather than reproduce it; draw conclusions, make generalizations, and produce arguments that are supported through extended writing; and connect what they are learning to experiences, observations, feelings, or situations significant in their daily lives both inside and outside of school.
 Assessment Plans
  1. Assessment Plans: are aligned with state content standards; have clear measurement criteria;  measure student performance in more than three ways (e.g., in the form of a project, experiment, presentation, essay, short answer, or multiple choice test; require extended written tasks; are portfolio-based with clear illustrations of student progress toward state content standards; and include descriptions of how assessment results will be used to inform future instruction.
  1. Teacher sets high and demanding academic expectations for every student.
  2. Teacher encourages students to learn from mistakes.
  3. Teacher creates learning opportunities where all students can experience success.
  4. Students take initiative and follow through with their own work. 
  5. Teacher optimizes instructional time, teaches more material, and demands better performance from every student.
Managing Student Behavior
  1. Students are consistently well-behaved and on task.
  2. Teacher and students establish clear rules for learning and behavior.
  3. The teacher uses several techniques, such as social approval, contingent activities, and consequences, to
    maintain appropriate student behavior.
  4. The teacher overlooks inconsequential behavior.
  5. The teacher deals with students who have caused disruptions rather than the entire class.
  6. The teacher attends to disruptions quickly and firmly.
  1. The classroom:  welcomes all members and guests; is organized and understandable to all students;  supplies, equipment, and resources are easily and readily accessible; displays student work that frequently changes; is arranged to promote individual and group learning.
Respectful Culture
  1. Teacher-student interactions demonstrate caring and respect for one another.
  2. Students exhibit caring and respect for one another.
  3. Teacher seeks out and is receptive to the interests and opinions of all students.
  4. Positive relationships and interdependence characterize the classroom.

Poems for Two Voices
Deconstructing the Rubric

There could be important and valid reasons for not actually doing many of the indicators on the rubric during a particular lesson.  For example, let's take a look at the first domain, Standards and Objectives and imagine we are observing a first grade teacher eight weeks into the school year.  The teacher has selected a poem that is culturally relevant for some of the students and is engaging them through choral reading.  As such, some of the students have relevant prior knowledge, but not all. The teacher does have the students share relevant experiences connected with the poem in order to heighten everyone's anticipatory knowledge.  She does this knowing that such method is in violation of the Common Core State Standard's privileging of close reading.  The poem does not readily connect with other disciplines, but is one that many of the children have expressed joy in reading.  The teacher has determined to not display the state standards as she has noticed that the amount of print it takes to display all of the standards on a board in the classroom tends to visually confuse her most fragile readers as they are acquiring alphabetic principle. As this is the first day reading the poem, the teacher understands that not all of the children will achieve mastery and has selected the method of choral reading in order to provide scaffolding so that students can be successful with manageable amounts of print and that natural differentiation will occur via the method. The teacher expects the children to experience the joy of reading, match voice to print, and share in the camaraderie of working together.  She does not expect her expectations to be characterized as demanding (the children have been on the planet for 72 months), but rather are intentionally invitational. The teacher does provide oral feedback to the children in the way of praise and corrective rereading, but does not include written feedback (Indicator: Academic Feedback, #1) as she knows the children would not be able to read meaningful evaluative remarks.

The Tennessee Rubric imagines a particular classroom context and fails to account for thinking that does not comply to a singular vision of excellence. It privileges amount as an indicator of excellence which is simply faulty.   For example, in the domain of thinking the difference between average and excellent performance is the number of thinking 'types' the teacher teaches.  One could well argue that teaching two different types of thinking thoroughly may be considerably less effective than teaching one well. Because the rubric privileges quantity, such differences would not be taken into accounting.

In many ways it is shocking to read the rubric as its limitations are so glaring and yet it remains an instrument that will be used to determine who remains a teacher and who does not.

Evaluation Based on State Test Results

In addition to the rubric scores, 50% of the annual evaluation is based on students' results on state tests. Tennessee's answer to the question 'What test do you use to evaluate teachers' performances when their students do not take a state test?' is pure folly.
...the state is requiring teachers without test results to be evaluated based on the scores of teachers at their school with test results. So Emily Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at David Youree Elementary, will be evaluated using the school’s fifth-grade writing scores. 
For 15 percent of their testing evaluation, teachers without scores are permitted to choose which subject test they want to be judged on. Few pick something related to their expertise; instead, they try to anticipate the subject that their school is likely to score well on in the state exams next spring. 
Even though this makes no logical sense, teachers and principals will be evaluated using this faulty method. The first grade teacher who may have taught none of the students in fifth grade will nonetheless have the scores from a single measure account for 15% of his/her rating. This is the brainchild of our elected officials.

Distracted, Demoralized

As parents, I don't think it will take much imagination for us to think about what this new evaluation system is doing to principals, teachers and by extension--our children.  At best, the educators must be distracted.  At worse, they are not only distracted from teaching, polishing their own craft, attending to their charges, and learning--but also they are demoralized.  The plan clearly communicates its distrust of principals and teachers.  Mr. Shelton is not trusted to know what is effective work.  Instead he is required to use a rubric that is cumbersome and faulty. Teachers are being normed by the faulty rubric and over time will be normed by students' performances on a single state measure--students who they may or may not even teach.  How students perform on a state measure (single test) is complex. For example, two years ago, my son developed seasonal asthma and was hospitalized for a week that coincided with state testing.  When he returned to school he had to take the state testing makeups.  For the previous three years he had scored advanced proficient on the state measures.  When his scores came back we were not surprised to that his scores dropped to proficient and partially proficient.  We understood why as he had returned to school and was heavily medicated.  His performance the next year showed significant increases.  It would be wrong to assume that one set of teachers had 'failed' him and miraculously another set had helped him to soar.  Contexts, such as hospitalization and medication, are not accounted for in these evaluation plans.

Parent Power

As parents we hold a lot of power collectively. We need to let our elected officials understand that our children cannot afford distracted and demoralized educators.  We need to let our officials who we elect know that they are answerable to us, the citizens and that we are not satisfied with faulty rubrics, absurd evaluation schema, and distrust. We need to let the faculties who teach our children know that we trust them--not to get it perfect, but to keep it real, kind, intellectually and developmentally appropriate, and relevant.  We want them to be risk takers.


  1. This is one of the most disturbing things I have read for Ed "reform". The rubric itself is ridiculous and leaves me wondering who designed it. Part of the irony is that if any schools use scripted programs (which I'm sure they do), the teachers may be bound to that script...and yet at the same time punished for not meeting the criteria on the rubric. For exampe,"The teacher consistently organizes the content so that it is personally meaningful and relevant to students." How is this possible with a scripted curriculum you are forced to adhere to, or even using the CCSS? Each diminish, if not wipe out entirely, any room for culturally relevant lessons, or similar. As for the test scores, being evaluated for your students' test scores is bad enough, but to be evaluated by someone else's scores is just absurd. It makes me so angry. And sad.
    I thought I had seen the world's worst teacher eval system and rubric when I taught in the city. This is by far worse.

  2. Sam, you raise important questions. I hadn't even considered the scripted program. I found the rubric cumbersome in ways that would make it impossible to actually inscribe meaning while observing. It was disturbing to post.

  3. Colorado has passed a similar law in their efforts to win the Race to the Top money. We didn't get any of that money, but the law remains. Next year 50% of a teacher's eval will be based on test scores. They haven't said yet what happens to teachers without a standard test in place. All teachers will be evaluated, supposedly several times a year, with a system we haven't yet seen, but they say they're working on it. I can only hope it turns out as effective as Tennessee's vision.

  4. Brent, I agree with you. It is all very disturbing. One owuld hope the evaluation method and toold would be of high quality and collabroatively determined. This just doesn't seem to be the case.

  5. Brent,

    Denver Public Schools is piloting this system. It's hilarious if you're cynically inclined. We get random walk-ins from "peer observers" (no joke these are fresh-out-of-college graduates with no teaching experience) four times per year. They observe us for 50 minutes each session, then they give us an evaluation based on a rubric strikingly similar to Tennessee's. We have the same 1 to 5 rating system. These are currently worth 25 percent of our yearly evaluation; this leaves 50 percent for standardized test results and - thank Science - 25 percent for more subject administrator evaluations, student and parent feedback.

    This article is a good summary of how I feel. Without enough anger.

    -Brian Clark

  6. P.S. How much money are these 40 "peer" reviewer salaries costing the district? At 30K per, we're at 1.2 million. Haha.

  7. Wow Brian, thanks for posting a response. I didn't know that was happening in Denver. Peer reviewers who have little no or irrelevant experience are hardly peers. Is this the Gates funded project?

  8. Yep, that's the one. When good intentions go horribly wrong.

  9. Not sure they were ever good intentions, but am sure from what you write, that the actions are wrong.


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