Monday, October 11, 2010

Scapegoats and Saviors IV

the final article in my series about teachers bringing sexy back to education

The Age of Quants: An Introduction
Quant- (noun) a person who understands by determining a numerical value of things; one who sees the world through a lens of numbers

We are a culture obsessed with numbers. And for good reason: a solid statistic is hard to argue with. From stocks, to movie ticket sales, to batting averages, to votes on American Idol, we derive a great deal of information about what we value from numbers. Conversely, however, we love to argue with numbers. Debates about climate change, the electoral college, and who is the greatest pop star in the world all straddle the fault lines of the reliability of data.

Most often, we use and celebrate data that support our conclusions; we refute or ignore data that challenge our conclusions. I do not point this out because I wish to make the point that we are stupid, listless morons who eschew the very fundamentals of inquiry (although: sometimes we are).

I point it out because, in our cultural dialogue, statistical data doesn't always end debates.

Often, we argue about the efficacy or value of the data. We talk about who came up with the data, what motives the data collectors had. We like our data to come from 'trusted sources.' In our culture, this often means that we like our data to come already packaged to support our political or personal belief systems.

We like boutique data. Personalized data. Friendly data.

Keep this in mind as we talk about how to integrate 'data' into teacher evaluations.

Scapegoats and Saviors: A Recap
In parts I-III of this series, I presented the reasons why tenure is doomed. I explored how the American public will no longer accept the status quo regarding teacher quality. Simply too many poor teachers have served in public education; the national argument about taxes has sharpened the teeth of critics of teachers. Student academic performance, long ignored and undervalued, appears to be finally affecting national performance in the private industry. Americans are beginning to truly imagine what a future will look like when we are outplayed by smarter, better trained foreign competitors.

People are angry. On the left and on the right. Everyone agrees: schools need to improve. The current political answer is to improve things through tests.

Race To the Top: A Quick Review
President Obama's 'Race to the Top' is an unparalleled game-changer in education reform. In this massive project, states compete for federal money. Any state that accepts the federal money has to play by certain conditions-- and one of the most important conditions focuses on teacher evaluation through student achievement on standardized tests.

By making it an opt-in, Obama has already gotten over the biggest hurdle of government reform: “the death by a thousand cuts” of legislative compromise. There was barely an argument about RTT because it doesn't act like a law. It acts like a contract. If your state doesn't want to play by the rules, then you don't need to care about it. But if your state won money, then teachers in your state will be evaluated through student performance on standardized tests.

I've tried to distill what RTT is about. There appear to be three goals to RTT:
1) boost student progress across the nation through the use of standardized tests
2) remove the protections that tenure offers to ineffective or poor teachers
3) connect (politically) “getting rid of bad teachers” with spending more money on education

Even in a lousy economy, people are willing spend a lot of money to get rid of bad teachers and increase student performance. Brilliant, right?

The $4 billion offered by RTT has been the milkshake that has brought all the states to the yard-- or, almost all of them. Over 40 states have gotten into the running-- all accepting the premise that teacher pay would be connected in some way to student performance. The states that have won the money have taken the first big step to replacing tenure as we know it.

New York state, where I teach, has won hundreds of millions of dollars this summer through RTT, as did over 40 other states that are accepting RTT money in some form. The ball is rolling.

I'm not sure people understand that this is already happening.

It's the Teachers, Stupid
“These new tests will be an absolute game-changer in public education.”
Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education

Here is the rub: this new model puts standardized tests at the center of everything.

The paradigm shift is nothing short of tectonic; the impact on teacher evaluation is impossible to refute. In fact, everything in education will bend to the new gravity forces of testing.

This is a mistake. Standardized testing cannot lead the reform. Yes, improving tests is a good idea. But testing simply cannot be at the center of public education.

Investigate the track record of standardized tests like IQ and SAT and you won't find much that speaks to bettering student performance. Standardized tests do little help the learning process; broad standardized tests ONLY serve evaluation purposes.

Tests are tools. That's all that they can be.

Using tests to improve education is like regulating drum beats to make songs more moving or wonderful. It's like regulating surgeon scalpel sizes to make people more healthy. It doesn't make sense. Education, like music and medicine, isn't just a science. It's also an art.

The most important thing in education is the relationship between students and teachers.
And the most important thing in a good student/teacher relationship is a good teacher.

It's not the tests! It's the teachers! We have to focus on the teachers!

New Tenure: Checks and Balances
Let's improve education by making better teachers.  We'll do it by rewriting how people become teachers.

I propose that we focus on how we can use system I'm calling “New Tenure” to develop and protect great teachers. The lion's share of our money, talent, and effort should be dedicated to developing a culture that will produce kick-ass educators. We need to make schools into farm systems that generate great teachers.

We can do this by using the quantifiable data right alongside qualifiable data.

We need to broaden the sources of teacher evaluation. That's right: teachers need MORE official evaluation. Face it: teachers are constantly being evaluated by everyone--but so little of it has any professional or useful impact.

Here's one way we could do it-- I'm sketching very broadly here because only experimentation will bear out the best ways to do this. These ideas, however, should form the basis of how tenure is awarded and maintained.

You listening, US Ed Secretary Arne Duncan?

New Tenure Teacher Evaluation: Four Sources
1. Student Performance. In the Age of Quants, we must accept how much we love the numbers generated by things like standardized tests. We cannot-- and should not-- get rid of them. I say we keep standardized tests but remove them from their ever-growing privileged place at the center of evaluation of teachers.
2. Administrator Input. Managers will continue to provide anecdotal evaluation of teacher performance. Teachers will be evaluated as “Unsatisfactory,” “Satisfactory,” or “Kick-Ass.” Ok, maybe not Kick Ass. But something like that. The point is to focus on the idea of valuing and striving for astonishingly good teachers.
3. Student/Parent Review. This has been done for years in universities and colleges- but I suspect it will work best as non-anonymous. Elementary and Secondary models should be different. Perhaps it will follow a “Yelp” or “Amazon” ratings model. It'll allow for a productive outlet for the most vital (and viral) of current evaluations. No more gossip. You put your name on an evaluation of a teacher.
4. Peer Review. My most revolutionary idea-- and my best. Every year, teachers will be evaluated by other teachers. Peer Review will function best if it is THE component that drives teacher development. 

By making teacher evaluation a more broadly sourced enterprise, based on both quantitative and qualitative data, we will build a culture of rigor and professionalism. We'll also productively engage ALL of the voices that already speak about teacher evaluation.

Teachers: The New Hotness
RTT is a good start but its focus on testing needs to change. Teachers don't need to be regulated through standardized tests. They need to be scouted, developed, and then protected.

Standardized tests should be made by great teachers-- not the other way around. Using standardized tests to try to make great teachers is illogical-- and a dangerous move. We need change, yes! But let's not put tests at the center of the education universe. And let's not put children there, either.

Let's build everything around great teachers. Everything else will follow.

Teachers need to be superstars. A great teacher should be as valued in our culture as a great surgeon or lawyer. As treasured as a great professional short stop or vocalist.

Imagine it: a kid's bedroom with a bed and a desk and a computer. The room has your typical kid mess: clothes draped on a chair and some empty cups on the desk. The bed is an unmade riot of sheets and kid stuff. There's a cell phone on a shelf, headphones hanging from a bed post.

On the closet door is a poster. It's the type of poster you see in any kid's room. The superstar is a woman who worked her butt off to be great. She's an innovator and a hardworking talent. The kid was proud to tack up this poster and looks at it at least once a day.

The hero on the poster is not holding a tennis racquet or a microphone.

She's holding a piece of chalk.


  1. hey kelba, alex welch from high school very interesting blog love to hear more!

  2. Great series, Mike! I really love the idea of having teachers evaluate each other. Teachers tend to be competitive. At heart, though, we are all good people who want to help each other. Perhaps a collegial evaluation could help foster a better environment for teacher growth.

    You cannot leave out, however, that the responsibility of removing bad teachers lies in the hands of administrators. Tenure, despite what I've read consistently in the local paper, does not guarantee a bad teacher a job. It only provides a fair process when a teacher is considered to be under performing. We CAN get rid of bad teachers and it is mind-bogglingly easy. Just follow the simple steps in the contract: write the teacher up, give the teacher a plan, fire them when they don't follow through with the plan you've laid out. Simple. And yet, time and time again I've seen administrators fail to follow through with said plan. And bad teachers keep their jobs due to a technicality. You hit the nail on the head. Administrators need to be in the classrooms observing and scrutinizing more. But they could be doing their jobs NOW. No reform needed!
    Tenure is not the enemy. It can actually serve to protect good teachers who are the victims of poor administrators or political school landscapes.

    Oh, and the RTT is the milkshake that brings the schools to the yard. Nice touch!

  3. Great post. It's nice to have such a complex topic distilled so perfectly!