Sunday, August 11, 2013

Educator Evaluation Scores? Report or Not?

Throughout time I have responded to Boston Globe articles, but my responses, like this one, have never been published. Luckily with the fluency of social media today, I am able to publish my response to many via my blog. I look forward to your thoughts.

Sharing Teacher Evaluation Ratings: Media Response?

On Sunday, July 14,  the Boston Globe article, “City Denies Request for Teacher Rating,” focuses our attention on the question, Should the media publish teachers’ ratings related to the new Massachusetts' Educator Evaluation System?  Since I've spent countless hours in the past couple of weeks analyzing each element of the evaluation rubric and a year studying the process as part of a school pilot, I read the article with interest.

My analysis so far makes me both proud to be a teacher in Massachusetts, and also overwhelmed to meet so many detailed elements on a regular basis. I'm proud because so far in my analysis, I find the rubric to represent the behaviors and beliefs that underlie professional excellence and apt service to students. Overwhelmed because the rubric is complex, dense, and detailed calling for professional preparation and practice that relies on substantial, effective planning time, system-wide supports, collegial collaboration, and access to the best information, tools, and materials. Essentially the new rubric is calling for professional educators to perform their craft much like physicians. Similar to a health practitioner, the new rubric calls for educators to keep detailed records, perform individualized assessments, and design responsive learning endeavor so that all children learn well.

Unlike medical professionals however, educators often work with large groups of students at the same time, making individual work and response challenging. Also dissimilar to medical professionals, educators are often multi-tasking with many more professionals, family members, students, and others at the same time, and there is typically little support to help the educator with all the paperwork, phone calls, and efforts in this regard. The classroom educator is usually  his or her own administrative assistant, learning designer, systems' analyst, and practitioner.

The intent of the new Massachusetts' Educator Evaluation system is worthy as this system, if implemented with care and revised accordingly, will move the job of teacher into the professional realm with greater emphasis and reward.  However, the system is new, and there is still a lot of room for finesse and change. To publish teacher ratings well before the system is refined would be unfair to educators since in many cases the system is not yet supported well for the following reasons:
  • Evaluators and teachers are learning the system at the same time, hence, as in any new learning, there is lots of room for error.  An evaluator who may not understand the system well may misrepresent a teacher's skill and effort in either a positive or negative direction.
  • Also, the rubric is complex serving as a description of the perfect teacher. Just as there is no perfect human being, there is also no perfect educator. Hence is it fair to rate people on a perfection scale?  Instead the rubric serves as the shining light that teachers should be moving towards. Therefore, should this rubric be replaced by a short list of essential practice attributes for every educator and  a list of growth options for educators to choose from and work towards each year?  Would this be more realistic? Similarly would the rubric be better used if the categories were changed to descriptors such as novice, apprentice, practitioner, and master rather than those related to “needs improvement,” “proficient,” and “exemplar.
  • Next, the evaluation is subjective.  We know that the contexts of schools and systems, the personalities and experience of evaluators, and the expectations of students, families, and community members differ substantially. This presents a broad subjective factor to the process--a subjective factor that also presents caution when it comes to publishing teachers' ratings in a comparative fashion.
  • Also, similar to the children in your own family, educators bring diverse strengths, experiences, and personalities to schools. We don't want "Stepford Teachers," but instead we want diverse, versatile, effective faculties in every school.  We don't want to diminish a teacher's strengths so that he/she meets a satisfactory level on all 33 elements, but instead we want to help teachers manage and commit their energy to the areas of their craft that matter to students, and to the school?  That demands choreography, artistry, and humanity--not a one size fits all evaluation. This is another reason why the rating should not be published in a comparative fashion, since that comparison alone does not match the functionality of a wonderful school.  Similar to a wonderful family, our strengths lie in our diversity not in our sameness.
I want our profession to move forward to represent the latest cognitive research, technological tools, and global necessity. I support the fact that the new Massachusetts' Educator Evaluation System presents a host of worthy goals and descriptors for all professional educators to move towards.  It is clear that similar to many past Massachusetts' initiatives, this effort represents substantial experience, research, time, and student-centered care.  However, I don't want this wonderful effort to be diminished by public comparisons and analyses that don't match the new system's overarching intent to employ fine schools and qualified educators in every community.

So what do I think the media's response to this system should be? 

The media should focus on the specifics of what it means to teach and learn well.  A focus on those attributes would serve to educate the State's learning community including students, families, educators, leaders, and all other community members.  The research related to learning and teaching has grown substantially, and the more the media can highlight specific stories of educational excellence including student success, educator strengths, effective school structure, optimal community support, and leadership strengths, the more the entire State will understand what it means to teach well, and to support learning. That knowledge, in turn, will serve to strengthen our schools whereas a media focus on comparative data will only serve to support superficial dialogue and misguided comparisons.

I also don't mind if the media fairly reports on unsuccessful approaches, schools, and efforts--good schools and teachers need public support, and sadly, many unfair, unjust, and unsuccessful school efforts will persist without positive public support and critique of what is best for students.  For example, the inequity of materials, school environments, playgrounds, and after school programs are stories worth reporting.  If we want to be a strong, successful State, we will support excellence in every school, rich/poor, urban/suburban/rural, preschool/elementary/middle school/high school, and charter/traditional. If we want schools to succeed, we will take the research seriously that points to optimal health and early childhood education efforts too. We'll also look for ways to support families and communities so they can support children well with plenty of parent/adult time and care, parks and playgrounds, and affordable, healthy food, and medical attention. 

It's a waste of time to spend lots of time in useless, unfair comparisons with regard to a brand new assessment system, but it is not a waste of time to focus on building the best schools and the most qualified teachers.  This is not a comparison process, but instead a development process--a development process that requires substantial, focused time, research, collaboration, financial support, and understanding.  Our State, Massachusetts, has done a terrific job with education--I'm amazed at where past efforts have moved us, but, as the Governor noted in his State of the State speech, there's definitely room for growth, and if any state can grow with strength in education, it is our state.