Saturday, January 3, 2015

Teacher Evaluation, Fear, and Certainty

Bearing Witness (M.A. Reilly, Collage. 2012)

I. The State

When I was reading Valerie Strauss's current column, "Teacher evaluation: going from bad to worse?" that Carol Burris authored about proposed changes to NY's teacher evaluation system, I thought about our need for certainty and how this need is directly (in)formed by our national mistrust of other and the fear that this mistrust gives voice to. In a recent letter (linked via the Stauss column) by New York Chancellor Merryl Tisch to a Cuomo aid, the Chancellor writes about changes to the State's evaluation system she would want to see in order to make the system "less complex and more effective in differentiating performance." She proposes that the Governor and Legislature could amend Education Law §3012-c to:

Eliminate the locally selected measures subcomponent, established through local collective bargaining. The data reveal that the locally-negotiated process for assigning points and setting targets in this subcomponent do not differentiate performance in terms of the composite ratings that teachers and principals receive. Instead, assign 40 percentage points to student growth on State assessments and other comparable measures of student growth – including performance-based assessments (like those used in NYC in 2013-14) – determined by districts. 

We shift into another time when certainty becomes an overwhelming need. There is no present here, just reconstructions of the past and/or imaginings of some future. In such schema, we cannot trust our senses as they cannot be engaged when we are not in the present. This is when we our sense of mistrust grows so exponentially that belief in a single measure becomes more trusted than what we know through direct and lived experiences.  This is when the plan to "Eliminate the locally selected measures subcomponent, established through local collective bargaining" and "Establish State-prescribed scoring ranges for the other measures of teacher and principal effectiveness (the observation subcomponent) rather than allowing them to be locally-negotiated" appear to not only be rational, but necessary.

But beneath this rhetoric is a provided truth brought to you by the State. Read closely for it says: the State and its test results know better than you, know better than me, know better than your neighbors, your local teachers who spend most days out of a year with your kids, know better than the local librarian, your family doctor, the plumber you call at 1 a.m. when the hot water heater leaks out, know better than the cashier who chats you up as you bag your groceries, your imam, minister, priest, rabbi or your connection to the divine.  The State knows better than you or your community. The State is Truth and that is what allows Tisch to utter the inane proclamation: A teacher who has received two consecutive Ineffective ratings should not be permitted to return to the classroom.

Really?  This statement tells us that Tisch believes that a determination of worth can be based largely on the outcome of high stakes tests that each and every year seem to have considerable flaws, are designed to measure only what can be tested large-scale and privileged by math and reading standards, and are tests that are kept from public scrutiny. Scrutinize the teachers, but not the tests that measure their worth?

This is a closed system of value, self-informing and it situates humans as dispensable. Surely we can do better.

II. Love

We dismiss the local at our own peril, not because the local is godly or represents some divine Truth, but rather because is its inherently fallible in its humanness and is in sync with the ever emerging present. The local keeps us humble because it carries with it a truth no State can know or promulgate: how we frame and respond to problems are conditional by what we can economically, socially and spiritually afford.  All of the teachers who have taught our son have provided us with important understandings about him that were far, far superior to any state test result we have ever read. Teachers have provided us with doable suggestions, specific supports, and inquiries worth our wonder.

The state test has never cared about my child. It has not offered us insights that we did not already know and it has offered us conflicting information that made us doubt the tests' validity.  It has offered us an expensive summary of his performance across a single week in spring each year that measured a very narrow set of reading and math objectives.  Contrast that with the 40+ teachers he has had who have cared deeply enough to tell us things challenging to hear as well as that which have made us proud, pleased, and purposeful. His teachers have offered guidance, interpretation, and love. Just a week ago an email arrived from a current teacher who queried how to (re)enage our son's creative practice with his work. This is a class where numerically my son performance is at the A+ range because his technical know-how is great.  Additionally, this is a teacher my son respects and dearly loves. Discussing the teacher's concern allowed us to open an important conversation at home about the technical and the creative and how even though these are co-specifying-- they require different vulnerabilities from us.

This teacher's email sent over the holiday opened us to wonder.

These are matters of great importance.  No state test is designed to even inquire about such dispositions, such complications, such vulnerabilities, such wonderings. No state test result could hint at this teacher's intellectual and spiritual influence on my child.

III. Neighborhoods and Subsistence

I think here of  a meaningful essay, The Idea of a Local Economy, that Wendell Berry wrote for Orion.  In it he tells us that local economies rest on two principles: neighborhoods and subsistence. I think we can apply Berry's ideas about the local to school and learning. He writes,
In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and nothing else, is the practice of neighborhood. This practice must be, in part, charitable, but it must also be economic, and the economic part must be equitable; there is a significant charity in just prices.
Of course, everything needed locally cannot be produced locally. But a viable neighborhood is a community; and a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common. This is the principle of subsistence. A viable community, like a viable farm, protects its own production capacities. It does not import products that it can produce for itself. And it does not export local products until local needs have been met. (From here)
To desire and practice cherishing and protecting what we have in common cannot be found on state tests, are not communicated in their results,  and may well be in conflict with the ideology that makes such tests overly privileged.  But cherishing and protecting are essential teacher acts--ones that our myopic attention to state test results threaten.

We cannot forget this.

What we have in common is that we are fallible humans. Teachers, like all of us, don't get it consistently 'right' nor do they need to. We need to learn how to love these vulnerabilities, not run from them.

IV. Fear and Wonder

Fear is the rot that undermines community, that allows for States to rise in ways that threaten local liberties, colonize neighborhoods.  If our military and legal responses to 9/11 have taught us nothing, surely they have taught this: Liberties can easily be sold off when fear is manufactured and spreads unchecked. We forget who we are, who our neighbors are and replace self and other with imagined dangers. Similarly, we forget who our local teaches are and replace them with images of the worse of that profession. We begin to doubt in ways that harm us.

Again Berry helps us to understand why shifting to local is important. He says,
...the idea that local needs should be met first and only surpluses exported does not imply any prejudice against charity toward people in other places or trade with them. The principle of neighborhood at home always implies the principle of charity abroad. And the principle of subsistence is in fact the best guarantee of giveable or marketable surpluses. 
In our schools, local child-specific needs are being set aside in order to privilege the chance for better outcomes on state tests. I have seen this firsthand. For example, rather than teach the child who is behind grade level to better read, that child is forced to work with text he or she can not decode, let alone comprehend on a daily basis across the school year. That means the child falls further and further behind because she or he cannot practice reading in meaningful ways, nor can this child accrue knowledge to help with reading.  This steady diet of unattainable reading breeds avoidance to reading. The decisions about that child have been removed from the classroom and the school and are imposed by city and state curriculum mandates. The test outcomes are so important, that curriculum, instruction and professional learning are shaped by test specifications.  Such malpractice is done daily in small and profound ways that over time alter the landscape we call school. This is what the our reliance on single measures procures.

So what is our True North, than?

In Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon writes:
Black Elk says it is in the dark world among the many changing shadows that men get lost. Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more (p. 240).” 
We think True North is about certainty. It is not. True North is an inheritance of wonder and nothing else. Let's help each other find new roads to walk. Let's trust one another.


Heat-Moon, William Least (2012-04-03). Blue Highways: A Journey into America. Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition. 

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