Shame and Blame

It is a tired axiom that teachers get blamed for things that aren’t always their fault. And while that matter deserves exploration on its own, for today let’s leave it at a judicious reprinting of two worthy commentators.

The first is, William Johnson, a special education teacher from Brooklyn, NY, who writes in the New York times:

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.

Like most teachers, I’m good some days, bad others. The same goes for my students. Last May, my assistant principal at the time observed me teaching in our school’s “self-contained” classroom. A self-contained room is a separate classroom for students with extremely severe learning disabilities. In that room, I taught a writing class for students ages 14 to 17, whose reading levels ranged from third through seventh grades.

When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.

I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.

In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

The other voice is Bill Gates, responding to a recent decision in New York State, also writing in the Times:

LAST week, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that teachers’ individual performance assessments could be made public. I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake.

I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.

In most public schools today, teachers are simply rated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” and evaluations consist of having the principal observe a class for a few minutes a couple of times each year. Because we are just beginning to understand what makes a teacher effective, the vast majority of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Few get specific feedback or training to help them improve.

Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating” — a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores — and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.

At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.

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