Recently, a reader made a comment here raising a very common concern that is out there in the public:
That all said, everyone who has been to school or worked in a school knows very well that there are teachers who do little more than draw a check or worse. When my wife taught there was a teacher who yelled at her students so loud that my wife had to close her room’s windows and the neighbors complained of the noise. Then the was the teacher who got his kicks by tripping 2nd graders. I’m sure that you can add your examples.
What of the students they teach? What of the teachers, like you, who put their all into their job and whose efforts and profession are demeaned by these teachers? Can we say that it is too hard to figure it out who is doing a good job and who isn’t so we shouldn’t try thus leaving them in the classroom?
He goes on to point out the benefits of having teacher evaluations being much more cohered now than before and the need this is addressing while acknowledging that current methods leave much to be desired.
It was such a substantive comment and raises the issue in a way that really invites engagement, that I wanted to give it a more thoughtful reply. To me, this gets at a much bigger, more essential question — how will we develop the teaching profession into one that is much more widely reflective and where teachers are given constant, genuine opportunities to evolve, grow, learn, share, and improve? How should weak teachers be defined and their needs addressed, even if that includes being told the profession may not be for them (sometimes even after a MA degree has been earned)?
A lot of what will define your approach to this depends on your philosophy of education and learning. If you see being a “learned” person as knowing a static set of specific skills, then you might prefer a “give them a test a year and if they don’t pass, get rid of them” approach. However, if you see education— and elementary schools in particular— as the place that shapes how a person learns to learn, and develops as an individual with their own moral identity, are exposed to different ideas and taught to analyze them critically before passing judgment (ironically), and you see it teaching a specific skill set that can’t ever be static—unless we still want children learning to write with a quill and not learning how to type—then you probably see how a standardized test, developed by a for-profit vendor who doesn’t know the child or what their educational needs or goals were for the year (which is always in addition to whatever is defined as needed for the grade), is an absurd way to assess a student or their teacher.
So, how do we do it then? How do we define, determine, and even weed out bad teachers? While there are those who spend their days researching, writing, and speaking on this question, I do feel that teachers who specialize in subgroups like ELLs and Special Education have a particularly important role to play in this conversation, which is why I’d like to address it, and welcome more teachers to do the same. Empirical evidence is relevant here.
Assessment That Doesn’t Just Determine but Encourages Growth
Well, I think the process and needs are much more complicated than, for example, relying even a little bit on statewide standardized tests. You can’t analyze and assess a teacher in a vacuum. No teacher is an island. A teacher’s skills and success are not simply defined by her own actions. It’s rare that I hear an elementary teacher say she/he creates her own curriculum. At least in NYC, I almost never hear it. In fact, the only time I have ever heard it was this week from a teacher at a small, progressive private school. Teachers are typically not deciding what math program they use, if the approach is textbook or project-based, or what pacing to use (ie., how quickly to transition between the units of study), etc. These are things decided on at much higher levels than even principals, usually. I don’t necessarily find this problematic, per se, but it is an element that shouldn’t be ignored when determining a teacher’s strengths: would she teach differently if she were planning the curriculum?
There are many other factors that feed into creating a teacher; what college program did she have? What pre-service experience was he given? Was he assigned to a great veteran teacher or a mediocre one? Is he teaching the grade that best suits his personality? The list is really immense, but I want to address one that is most directly related to using one annual test to assess a teacher: his students.
What Do You Teach?
I have heard principals say that when they interview a job candidate, they hope the reply will be “students”, not simply, “science”. This means they want to know if you’re going to be attuned to the unique strengths and needs of your students and if your teaching is going to reflect that, or do you plan out how you will teach based solely on standards. This is where teaching becomes much more nuanced and challenging, because a teacher might think to herself, “Most of my students are still not grasping addition but the grade standards require they know multiplication by now, and they will need to divide double-digit dividends by single-digit divisors for next month, and if I go deeper into addition, taking time from those two areas, then they may not be ready for the state test in June.” She may want to teach to those children’s needs, but ultimately if she wants to be in line with the curriculum and state standards, etc., she will need to move on. So, like it or not, she is not just responsible for meeting the needs of the children in front of her. (Yes, she can teach some of this through small group instruction, but that would be redundant if all the children needed the extra instruction time.)
And then what about students who are English language learners, or require special education services, or who fit in both those subgroups? What about students who come to you in fourth or ninth grade and haven’t been to school since first grade in their country? These are just the largest, most common variables. There are many more that include home life, personality, success in previous grades, cultural values, illness and related absenteeism, etc. (and multiply this by 30+ per classroom).
We aren’t just teaching a static skill set to a waiting, sponge-like crowd.
Why must ESL and Special Ed teachers be at the heart of this discussion?
Since we teach subgroups which might be a minority in some places, we are often a second thought when it comes to curriculum planning for a grade or when those in power are determining how to assess teachers. But it is exactly because our experiences are often the exception to the rule that we should be part of defining it.
Take this scenario: You teach at a school where about 40% of the population are ELLs, about a third of whom are receiving special education services and 10% are SIFE (students with at least two years of interrupted formal education). Your school has to determine the grade-wide priorities, goals, curriculum and purchase materials that meet the needs of the majority. Your class is specialized in comparison because you teach a transitional bilingual 6th grade where about 5 of your students only went to school up to third grade before coming to you. You think two of your newcomers may have learning disabilities but they cannot be assessed because they are too new. If you are not included in the curriculum planning, have no co-teacher in your grade, and there is only a literacy or math coach at your school (if you are lucky), then it is solely on you to seek out supports that other teachers have readily available to them. So, I should also mention there is scant research addressing things such as teaching beginner ELLs how to read in their new language when they can’t read in their first, and there are no courses that I know of that you could take to learn how to address the needs of SIFE students.
So, should your experience be measured and valued in identical ways to the others? Are your needs being sufficiently met and should that be entirely on your shoulders? Your students who have been in the country for exactly one year (and not necessarily one whole school year, mind you) will be taking the ELA test. Should those scores be used to assess you at all? What would you need and what would you want others to use to assess your students’ progress and your own?
Find me an algorithm that can account for all that and I will shush. This is why these teachers should be a central part of the discussion. The percentage of ELLs in our classrooms are only increasing (and please don’t misinterpret that as a complaint, it isn’t).
So, what then?
In my opinion, given the complexity of teaching, assessing teaching ought to be informed and holistic. In NYC, the Danielson Framework being piloted is definitely a comprehensive resource because of the many elements it involves and its emphasis on improving teachers, but even Ms. Danielson herself has commented that how her Framework is applied is important as well (I am inferring here a little).
So, this is an area of concern for me: not just what we use to assess teachers, but the manner in which we do it, and what epistemology informs the approach. If we are after a true understanding of the problem, we need evidence and while there appears to be a lot of conflicting research on the best ways to address teacher evaluation, what’s missing, in my opinion, is teachers themselves engaging in research; not simply as subjects but researchers themselves. How can we expect to teach higher-order thinking and problem solving if we aren’t encouraged and allowed to do it ourselves for the improvement of our profession?
The underlying bias we need to upend is this misconception out there I mentioned earlier that elementary schools teach (or should) teach static skills, but this is no longer true. With an increased emphasis on academic rigor and higher-order thinking skills, elementary school is no longer your grandma’s grammar school. It’s not even mine. (This fact reinforces for me the importance of tenure, but that is for another post).
This kind of teaching requires increased intellectual capacity and rigor within the teaching staff itself. Much of this already exists untapped. In my experience, there are many teachers who would even volunteer to share their expert knowledge in different areas, and mentor new and veteran teachers to improve the practice and culture of teaching.
I recently watched this TED video examining a weakness in math education: simple problems that require applying a memorized formula to answer them. His analysis is itself a metaphor for all teaching but also for this conversation on teaching.
So my suggestion? Involve teachers. Place the values of rigor and the responsibilities of evaluation onto teachers themselves (not alone but in conjunction with others). Stop pretending this is a simple problem.
This is academia, is it not?