What We Talk About When We Talk About Evaluation

27 Jan

Regents week is a particularly strange time in public schools.  It is an entire week of exams–held twice yearly–in which students are not afforded any instruction time, but are assessed and evaluated on the skills and content they have accumulated in their courses that year.  And as the grading commences, their teachers, and their schools are evaluated and assessed as well.  The hallways are eerily empty, and quiet.  In the classrooms there is not the chatter of authentic learning, or gossip; educational debate, or bickering between students or students and teachers.  For some of the tests the school floor is more-or-less entirely empty.  Teachers sit quietly in rooms as they proctor, staring at the students, as the students stare blankly at bubble sheets; or we meet in departments to grade exams; or we meet in departments to talk about our work going forward.  Students almost always walk out of the exams supremely confident (and in a city where nearly half of the students will be disappointed with their result, this should speak volumes) and teachers hold their breath.  Sometimes it seems like the teachers, and administrators are more concerned about the tests than the students.  In the next few years that will almost certainly be the case.

In his “State of The City” speech two weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg proposed an education plan that the media and his supporters have heralded as “Ambitious” and “Long Overdue.”  As discussed in my last post, I have theoretical/philosophical issues with almost everything Bloomberg proposed in the speech.  But for the sake of this post, I want to focus on the “Evaluations” section.  The NYT Schoolbook accurately describes the conflict Bloomberg faces, with $60M of federal funding being withheld from the City Schools because the state mandated that the money could not be dispersed without the districts reaching an agreement on evaluations with their teachers’ unions.  The common rhetoric is that the UFT (city teaching union) held up the funding because they refused to simply let bad teachers be evaluated and moved out.  What is not reported, and what many media outlets; loud-mouths riding the trains, and sitting at bars; or Facebook friends whose knowledge of the issue comes from news and Bloomberg funded commercials is the following:

  • State politicians chose (on their own) to make the “evaluations mandate” in order to provide the funding to the city’s schools.
  • The money from national funding would not be provided to the schools that are struggling.  It would have to be spent on new initiatives and programs (and not necessarily ever made available to the students from neighborhoods and schools that struggle most; or students who need the most services.)
  • The two biggest snags on the mayor-union negotiations were propositions to include student test scores in teacher evaluation, and the decision that evaluations would be made by administrators and third party representatives from network or district offices (not peer teachers.)

It shouldn’t even be necessary to explain why the second proposal in bullet three is worrisome for teachers, but I fear it is.  In school environments where teachers often have philosophical differences with their administrators that can grow into “personal” problems (as they do in every other work place), it is dangerous to give such power to individual administrators, whose career can be made or broken by impressing their seniors in district and network offices.  It was once the case that Principals were required to have served five years in the teaching profession, having shown excellence in educational service, before even beginning the process of applying for leadership position.  Typically this meant a few years of service as an Assistant Principal, apprenticing under another proven Principal before you became a Principal yourself.  Assistant Principals also were expected to teach at least one class (ideally maintaining some sense of what it is like to work in the classroom with students each and every day.)  Look up “Principal” in the thesaurus, in fact, and you will find “head teacher.”

Things done changed.  A few years back, some folks saw the Harvard-produced model of Teach For America (where untrained but well-educated and career-accomplished individuals were offered Masters Degrees while being thrust as first year teachers into high-needs schools) were so impressed by the notion of it, even though it was still to early in the game to see evidence of its risk-reward, and decided to craft a similar program for Principals.  They called it “Leadership Academy.”  Now a teacher who has served a full-time role in a school, and impresses some people in an interview can be given a school as a full-time principal (often a new school, and often a school servicing the city’s highest-needs children.)

Now, say your son Johnny happens to be a student at UpperWest High.  And Johnny has finally met a teacher whose engaged him in mathematics, his attendance has improved drastically because he has that teacher first period so he is dying to get to school each day.  The teacher helped Johnny pass his first ever Math Regents, and is helping him prepare for college math courses, and going beyond his call of duty to meet with Johnny and an English teacher every week to work on his personal essay for colleges.  Conversely Johnny’s History teacher is a cynical, out-of-touch jerk who tells Johnny he will never amount to anything, throws worksheets at Johnny and then sits at his desk reading the Post each day.  What you don’t know is Johnny’s history teacher is buddies with the UpperWest High Principal, they’ve worked together at the Principal’s old school, and the take their wives to Jones Beach on the summer weekends.  Johnny’s math teacher (the one who changed his outlook on schools?)  Well, he is young and a bit arrogant, and has rubbed the Principal the wrong way once or twice by asking questions that may have been perceived in the wrong tone as questioning authority.  Let’s say you find out shortly before Johnny’s graduation that the Math teacher received an “Unsatisfactory” rating and is now being terminated.  The history teacher, after he returns from the principal’s house on the Jersey Shore this summer, will enter his 15th year in the system, and make a 6-figure salary to throw worksheets at kids, read the Post, and ridicule other people’s children.  This is what we talk about when we talk about evaluations, as proposed by the Mayor.

Now the math teacher was not a caricature: there are teachers like that everywhere.  In every single school there is at least one or two teachers like that (even the ones the mayor is trying to shut down.)  Most teachers are good teachers, who are willing to go above and beyond their contractual obligations to help their students.  The history teacher was a caricature.  But it wasn’t my creation.  This is the teacher the Post and Mayor Bloomberg would like to have you believe is populating half the classrooms in the city.  Many teachers come to teaching, the argument goes, because they see it as an easy ride.  It couldn’t possibly be that pressures of the system make otherwise good people make bad decisions.

But let’s imagine that we live in the world as Mayor Bloomberg sees it.  The people his people have chosen to run schools are so well-intentioned for our kids that they can overcome human nature, and wouldn’t play favorites or politics in evaluating their teachers.  There is still the second stipulation to discuss.  Should teachers be evaluated on how their students do on tests?  Well this sounds like a great idea in theory.  But as Homer Simpson once said, “Even Communism worked in theory.  In theory…”  The theory begs two sets of questions though:

  • Who creates these tests, and what are they trying to measure?  How is it decided what is important to measure and why?  And how best to measure it?*
  • How do we then use the data/results to fairly evaluate teachers in a very diverse set of schools across the city?

The second bullet is a very difficult one to address.  And as I am trying very hard hear to avoid making this about my personal experience, let’s look at three different types of schools as evidence of why this proposal might concern the teachers and the union.  Let’s look at an “Elite School” like Bronx Science; a “failing” Transfer School, Harlem Renaissance; and the school on Rikers Island, Island Academy.  Obviously the teachers at these three schools are working with very different populations and students in very different life situations.  This isn’t to say there aren’t many students in each school with “mirror” students in the other two.  But these are the facts: a Junior taking an English Regents at Bronx Science, was in the elite percentile of the thousands of students who were dedicated enough to their own schooling and had the support of their families to take a test in 8th grade so they could get into one of the “premier” schools in the city.  They not only did better than most of the other kids who ever had a shot at taking that test, but now they have attended this premier school for three years, and shown a history of completing homework, attending nearly every day, and many other signs of academic success.  Meanwhile a Junior taking an English regents at Harlem Renaissance has transferred there sometime in the last year or so because he could not show these same signs of academic success at a traditional school (most likely one that is not even considered “elite.”)  He may have a young child, may have been incarcerated for the past six months, or may not have any parental involvement (indeed in a typical transfer school several of the students will be homeless or living in a group home.)  The next borough over, on Rikers Island you will find “Juniors” who may have struggled or dropped out of a traditional or transfer school.  The average reading age of the teenagers I taught in a Juvenile Center 3 years ago, was elementary level (between 4th and 5th grade, according to a “Star-Reading Assessment.”)  Given the transitional nature of the students (in and out of court, transferring prisons, getting locked up and released) it is entirely fathomable that a handful of students will come into the ELA class there one week, and be given the Regents Test the very next week.

Let’s put some names on these anonymous teachers: according to the school website, Bronx Science’s E5 teacher (whose students will be taking the Regents when they complete E6 in June, is Mr. O.  I do not know the name of the English Teacher at Harlem Renaissance, but we will call her Ms. B., the English Teacher at Island Academy, when I was working in that district was Mr. T.  Now these three teachers, in these three very different situations, with very different class, and school environments, and social issues impacting their students outside of their school day, are being evaluated with results data from the same exam.  My argument isn’t that one of these teachers is at a clear advantage regardless of how good he or she might be as an educator (although, I think that argument could certainly be made.)  My argument is, how in the world could you contract a system that would equally and fairly evaluate all three of these teachers based on how their students did on an exam?  If you did, how could you expect to know what impact Mr. O. (or either of the others) actually made, vs. their teachers in previous years?  Maybe it is the Sophomore English teacher at Bronx Science who teaches the kids the skills they need to pass that test, and teaches it so damn well.  And what would be the reasonable way of evaluating Ms. B., when the attendance at her school is below 70%, and 25% of the students didn’t show up for Regents (automatically failing.)  How could Ms. B. be held accountable for choosing to work at a school with such a high-needs population?  For trying to give kids a second chance and sticking with them against all odds, even at a school the Mayor would like to shut down despite the “A” on its most recent report card?  Not just held accountable, but punished for it.  And are we really going to judge Mr. T’s teaching ability by how kids with elementary-level reading ability did on a Regents exam after sitting in his class for, perhaps, a week?

What we talk about when we talk about evaluating teachers this way, is creating a system that rewards teachers for protecting their own asses, and fleeing to the top performing schools.  What sane and accomplished teacher would stay at a Harlem Renaissance, or volunteer to trek out to Rikers Island everyday, when they are going to be evaluated by the same exact method as their peers in schools where the kids simply do not fail the Regents?  And then what happens to the kids at Harlem Renaissance, or Island Academy?  Who teaches them, now?

What we talk about when we talk about evaluations, is how to keep the focus on teachers, and administrators, and policy makers, union bosses, and politicians.  We aren’t talking about the kids anymore.  We just aren’t.  Is this what we want the “Education” sections of our newspapers, the topic of debates politicians have about education, and the theory of people in the education field to be about: the teachers?  Since when was that what the national discussion of education is supposed to be about?

The following is true:  Like clockwork, every six months, when the regents approach I have the same dream.  I wake up in my dark bedroom, and in an adjacent room there is a lone bulb shining.  I get up and I walk toward the bulb, but as I get closer the hallway lengthens until I am feeling more and more isolated by the time I reach the room.  When I get to the room (which is usually the kitchen in my childhood home) there is a small table with an ELA Regents Exam and a pencil.  When I look the exam is not for one of my students.  It’s for me.

*This will be the topic of my next post, coming very soon.

**Congrats to my students who passed, and managed to read all 2400 words of this post to get to this message.  Of the students with a 70% attendance or better, 99% of you passed, as I promised you would.  Only 8 students overall did not receive a 65+, and while my heart goes out to ya’ll, I can honestly (and with a great sense of frustration and disappointment) say that I don’t know what 5 of you look like.  So again, congratulations.  The State of New York now believes you are ready for college.

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One Response to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Evaluation”

  1. Yo Mista January 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Enjoyed your post dude.

    I really do think one of the primary drivers of this new evaluation system is the separation between principal and teacher. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – they guys were all teacher-students. Fast-forward to the 1950s and 1960s, this was still true – except our numbers started to look bad due to cultures becoming heterogeneous and the private sector stealing a lot of raw talent from the pool of would-be teachers with promises of more money, etc. Prestige became more important than passion and happiness.

    Even at the biggest research universities, the professors may deem their research more important than their teaching, but they are still required to teach a course (whether their heart is into or not). I am sure most of them might not want to teach, but they do (maybe accidentally) learn a thing or two about their students and the next generation when teaching.

    I think I mentioned to you yesterday: lately, I am feeling burnt out teaching to our “target” population. If that’s all we do and think about, it can get exhausting, depressing, and futile. You need to make sure you take a mental break from what you teach, and be a student. You never know what might inspire your next lesson…

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