Sunday, November 27, 2011

Teacher evaluations in public

In my local rag, Julie Mack blogs about (among other things) education issues.   In a recent post, she recapped the comments of an earlier post about Michigan's new "evaluate all teachers!" commission.  I know I promised I wouldn't read the comments in local rag articles, because they never serve to do anything but infuriate me.  But I was reading a blog post.  About comments.  And it infuriated me.

Generally, the tone of the comments were critical of the notion that the educommittee didn't contain any current educators, but did manage to find room for an administrator of the National Heritage Academies.  That's a criticism I share.

Much of the debate about teacher evaluation centers around the role of test scores: How much of how good a teacher is should be determined by how well her students do on a written test which will either, because of the huge numbers involved, be graded by a computer or "read" for, on average, two minutes?  The problem with this is obvious and have been rehashed time and again.  Too much of the outcome of one-off assessments are dependent on factors which teachers cannot effect.  Is the test a good one?  Did the student eat breakfast that morning?  Get enough sleep the night before?  What's the student's motivation for doing well on the test?  Did the student's teacher last year do her job?  Who is writing the test, what's their motivation, and what are they REALLY testing?

In response to these legitimate concerns, in the comments of her post, Mack comments legitimately that teachers are not the only profession who are evaluated using formulas designed by non-practitioners, using metrics beyond the control of the practitioners.  She cites her own profession as an example.  I'm not sure what her motivations for saying this is.  In context, she seems to be saying, "Everybody else is putting up with it, and so am I, and so should you."  It detracts from the notion that teachers specifically are under attack, but the easy response to that is, will her evaluation be codified in state law?  But the relative victimhood of teachers isn't really the point.  Mack's comments should increase our awareness of the fact that, increasingly, the decision makers of the world want to see data about efficacy, and sometimes, their idea of data has no actual bearing on our effectiveness at our job.  The pushback (or feedback, or collaboration, or negotiation, or however you phrase it--the distinctions between them is the subject for another time) against this practice should be intense, wherever it comes up.  I say this not in the spirit of contrariness, but in the spirit of best practice.  If these evaluations are going to help practitioners get better, then they absolutely must reflect the outcomes we want to see.  They should also carry with them the recognition that we don't necessarily know yet everything we want to see.

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