"... the solution being considered by many states — having the government evaluate individual teachers — is a terrible idea that undermines principals and is demeaning to teachers. If our schools had been required to use a state-run teacher evaluation system, the teacher we let go would have been rated at the top of the scale.
Education and political leaders across the country are currently trying to decide how to evaluate teachers. Some states are pushing for legislation to sort teachers into categories using unreliable mathematical calculations based on student test scores. Others have hired external evaluators who pop into classrooms with checklists to monitor and rate teachers. In all these scenarios, principals have only partial authority, with their judgments factored into a formula.
This type of system shows a profound lack of understanding of leadership. Principals need to create a culture of trust, teamwork and candid feedback that is essential to running an excellent school. Leadership is about hiring great people and empowering them, and requires a delicate balance of evaluation and encouragement. At Harlem Village Academies we give teachers an enormous amount of freedom and respect. As one of our seventh-grade reading teachers told me: “It’s exhilarating to be trusted. It makes me feel like I can be the kind of teacher I had always dreamed about becoming: funny, interesting, effective and energetic.”
Some of the new government proposals for evaluating teachers, with their checklists, rankings and ratings, have been described as businesslike, but that is just not true. Successful companies do not publicly rate thousands of employees from a central office database; they don’t use systems to take the place of human judgment. They trust their managers to nurture and build great teams, then hold the managers accountable for results.
In the same way, we should hold principals strictly accountable for school performance and allow them to make all personnel decisions. That can’t be done by adhering to rigid formulas. There is no formula for quantifying compassion, creativity, intellectual curiosity or any number of other traits that make a group of teachers motivate one another and inspire greatness in their students. Principals must be empowered to use everything they know about their faculty — including student achievement data — to determine which teachers they will retain, promote or, when necessary, let go. This is how every successful enterprise functions.
A government-run teacher evaluation bureaucracy will make it impossible to attract great teachers and will diminish the motivation of the ones we have. It will make teaching so scripted and controlled that we won’t be able to attract smart, passionate people. Everyone says we should treat teachers as professionals, but then they promote top-down policies that are insulting to serious educators.
If we don’t change course in the coming years, these bureaucratic systems that treat teachers like low-level workers will become self-fulfilling. As the great educational thinker Theodore R. Sizer put it, “Eventually, hierarchical bureaucracy will be totally self-validating: virtually all teachers will be semi-competent.”
The direction of education reform in the next few years will shape public education for generations to come. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly said that in the next decade, “over 1.6 million teachers will retire,” and our country will be hiring 1.6 million new teachers. We will blow that opportunity if we create bureaucratic systems that discourage the smartest, most talented people from entering the profession.
Deborah Kenny is the chief executive and founding principal of Harlem Village Academies and the author of “Born to Rise: A Story of Children and Teachers Reaching Their Highest Potential.”
What is wrong with this?
The first thing wrong with this and other commentaries about evaluating teachers is that we continue on the merry-go-round of tying evaluations to student "performance." In no model I have seen is there a holding accountable for performance by either parents or the students themselves. When my children were in school, I was a huge factor in their academic lives. (I say "I" because their biological father was not at all involved in school matters, not when we were together and not afterwards) We were part of the "broken home" statistic that gets thrown about: divorced, single mom of 4, living in poverty with no nearby family or an involved father on the scene. But my girls did amazingly well in school (and all are successful now as adults). Why is that? 2 factors: a work ethic and involvement. Homework was done, looked at by me, turned in on time, studying happened around the table where I could help or at least be present (there was NO help from me with math). At no time did I take the attitude that the "teachers" were there to fix my kids, to stuff facts into them like sausages, to make them "learn" or to teach to a standardized test. It WAS assumed that each would take up her own learning as her personal responsibility. I used to say, "school is your job, your report card is your paycheck." That made sense to them. Of course I also instilled in each a love of learning new things, of mastery in each task undertaken. THAT is a key factor. I recall my father saying to me, "do your best and give it your best effort." I saw him working hard every day to support our family. We were not well-off by any means; he worked overtime to make ends meet. But he and my mother insisted that we do our own work: school work. We were told that education was the key. They were not highly educated people, Dad leaving school after 8th grade to help support his mother and 7 siblings, and Mom graduating as Salutatorian of her high school class and then being a stay-at-home mom after marriage. But both promoted the notion of education as important. Both were lifelong learners in their own right. It was the message we got that propelled us forward to succeed. It was the ethic learned at home and the sense of personal responsibility we saw modeled.
This leaves me wondering what messages and modeling are being given to some students today. What is the level of parental involvement, either from dual parent homes or single parent homes? I certainly experienced both kinds of homelife with my girls, and both worked to develop and foster a satisfactory ethic for education because I made it work. I got my education with a sense that it was up to me to accomplish and succeed. So did my girls.
So before we go down the path of tying learning outcomes to teachers as a way of evaluating, retaining, or releasing them, we ought to find ways to inculcate a sense of responsibility in our students and ways to support family life. We ought to hold each student personally responsible for his/her "performance." One way is standards-based learning. Teachers as facilitators, rather than as sausage stuffers, is on the horizon if we look to this style of learning. Students will become empowered with their own learning and will take ownership of the process with teachers there to lead and assist. It is a fact that we are still using the same teaching model developed in 1893: teach all students the same materials in the same way. Isn't it time to finally admit that all students are not the same? Isn't it time to let each learn in his/her own way? Isn't it time to stop "standardizing" everything and admit that our strength is in diversity? I think it is.
Fortunately, we are moving to standards-based learning. It will be a tough sell to many citizens because it shatters the old model and change is hard for many to accept, much less to embrace. But it will make a difference for our students and their (and our) futures.
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