Sunday, December 9, 2012

Too Many Tickets

Keep the qualifiable and the quantifiable separate

The best thing about Lulu's isn't the free pizza, although the pizza is pretty good.

You buy a drink, you get a freshly baked, sandwich-plate-sized pizza. It's NY dough, so it's chewy and crusty, the way God wants it to be. The sauce might be a little tart and the cheese is just ok, but the toppings are only a dollar, so why are you complaining? Just get the pepperoni and pineapple and be happy.

But, no, the best thing about Lulu’s is the skylight. It's a dive bar WITH A SKYLIGHT. I know: a true dive, by definition, cannot be improved with light, right? Wrong. Somehow that light, filtered through a metal grate and hanging plants, coupled with the smell of fresh pizza, makes Lulu's atmospheric and lovely. They also have a great selection of beer and booze.  It's one of my favorite bars in Brooklyn.

Don't go. I don't want it to get crowded.

Anyway, sitting in there this beautiful mid-December afternoon, I got a glimpse of one of the things that’s broken in our schools.

Pizza Tickets:  A Parable 
But, for the moment, back to the pizza.  Here's how it works:
  1. you buy a drink then get a ticket for free pizza
  2. take that ticket to the pizza kitchen window and order a pizza
  3. toppings? pay the pizza guy when you order
Easy, right? Simple, understated, and efficient.
That is, until a manager decided that having more “transparency” in the system would make it work better.

Now: First two steps are the same.  If you want toppings, then
  1. you have to buy toppings tickets from the bar
  2. bring the toppings tickets to the pizza guy
What’s happened?  It's crazy. I saw the harried bartender explain the system over and over to frustrated customers who walked back and forth between the bar and the pizza window. I'd hate to see it when things get busy at Lulu's.

Listen, it's a ridiculous example, I know. But it's illustrative of the stupid cost of manager-based systems in place of field-worker-based systems.  You’ve seen it a hundred times.  The focus on the manager makes things worse.

Managers:  It’s the Quality, Stupid
States across the country, under the federal mandates of Race To the Top, are in the process of creating and executing “teacher evaluations.” As people everywhere debate the merits of these evaluations, few people are spending any time talking about what these instruments actually value. Every single evaluation model I've looked at is a manager-based evaluation.

The problem? Managers-- in so many fields-- don't actually do the work of those that they evaluate. They only monitor, evaluate, and regulate their underlings. Managers create regulations-- like topping tickets-- because they don't KNOW what's going on. They need to have numbers to PROVE what's going on.

Subsequently, manager-based evaluation tends to be skewed towards things that can be quantified. Teachers are to be evaluated largely by managers looking for good numbers-- which is the central premise of “teacher evaluation.”  

There is no better example of this flaw than the "Value Added" Model.  At its best, the VA models help pinpoint really good and really bad teachers.  That's good-- but a very small set in a system that worships bell curve models, as explained by the National Council on Teacher Quality in their study of DCPS (District of Columbia Public School) teachers in 2010.  At its worst, and most common, it incentivizes teachers to make the students appear statistically stupid at the beginning of the year in order to show "growth."  

You know what happens to good teachers when they get incentivized to make their students appear stupid?  They get really demoralized.  And they stop thinking about teaching in favor of thinking about avoiding negative numbers. Teachers stop focusing on quality and start focusing on quantity. 

Teachers Should Evaluate Teachers
It's amazing to me that it's radical to say “teacher evaluation should be done by teachers.” The teachers who evaluate other teachers should be informed by data collected from managers, test-scores, peers, and student feedback.  Teacher evaluators would, as workers in the field, should give qualitative evaluations, not quantitative evaluations.

What do I say to all of those school managers (administrators)? Order the ingredients, keep the shop running, and look out for safety. Everything else—well, no offense, but it’s not really your job.  Keep those extra tickets to yourself. 



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