Nothing to Worry About?

On Friday of last week I read a story in our local paper about a new system of teacher evaluation the state Board of Education is instituting that “focuses on encouraging teachers to improve knowledge and instructional skills”.  Since sarcasm is my typical response to things that irritate me, my first thought was, “Damn, it is about time somebody told teachers they are supposed to improve knowledge and instructional skills.”  I was reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies.

Teachers didn’t need the memo either but they are getting a new evaluation system that promises to be more objective. Actually, the new system is partially modeled after a method of teacher evaluation that I have used for a few years and referred to as “pretty good” in an earlier post about evaluating pre-service teachers.  However, that wasn’t the only aspect that the article was referring to when it lauded its objectivity.  The other aspect, only briefly mentioned, was the incorporation of students’ standardized test scores into teachers’ ratings.  This might come as a shock to our readers, but all things being equal, I don’t actually oppose this idea (though my EduSanity colleague does).  Standardized tests are one way in which we can measure our students’ achievement and as such they should be a part of an evaluation system. However, all things are not equal.  Not even close.  I could go on forever about how we have created a system of standardized testing that is plagued with inequities, but others have covered that topic in great detail and for some people the argument will always fall on deaf ears.  Besides, that particular line from the article wasn’t what actually inspired me to write this post.  Instead, what finally got me was this quote towards the end:

“Our current high-performing teachers won’t have anything to worry about in this system.”

Right.

These changes in teacher evaluation are coming at a time in which 45 states are undergoing a monumental shift to the Common Core State Standards for English-Language Arts and Math.  However, while we have new “state” standards for English and Math, we don’t have similar standards for any other content area such as social studies, art, physical education, foreign language… etc.  Yet the CCSS is having an enormous effect on these other subjects because of the resources and time put into bringing ELA and Math online, which means our teachers are being pulled in very different directions in regards to teaching.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that one of the schools’ main concerns is a new standardized test lurking on the horizon. This new test is from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and will be used by about half the states to assess student achievement.  However, since we only have CCSS for English and Math, we only have a new test for English and Math.  Many states used to have standardized tests for other subjects, but dropped them because NCLB didn’t care about them.  Now we have a testing system that is heavy on two subjects and almost non-existent on everything else, yet somehow we are going to tie the performance of all of our teachers to standardized test scores? It doesn’t matter if you teach a subject that is tested by PARCC or not, you have a reason to worry.

It gets better.  The new PARCC standardized test I just mentioned DOESN’T EVEN EXIST YET.  Sure, they’re working on it, but meanwhile states are asking teachers to implement the CCSS in their classrooms with hardly any idea what the test that will measure their success is going to look like.  How can you prepare your students for a test that doesn’t exist?  I have yet to find an educator who thinks it is a good idea to say, “Hey, here’s a hundred page list of stuff I’m supposed to teach.  Write a test for my students, but of course you can’t use the whole list because that would be way too much.  Also, don’t tell me what you do decide to pick.  Instead, provide me with really vague charts that say stuff like ‘Type III tasks call for modeling/application in a real-world context or scenario and can also involve other mathematical practice standards.’   That should really nail it down for me. Also, don’t show me the test, or even let me know what it looks like until the day my students take it. I like to teach on the edge.  As the kids would say YOLO.”

Wait, it gets even better. Not only do teachers have to worry about a test that doesn’t exist yet, but in many cases they are also still required to teach their old state standards in addition to the CCSS.  In other words, since there is no new test and there is no possible way that we could survive a year that didn’t include a standardized test, your students are still going to take the old test.  But don’t worry our teachers are told, you are going to be given a “waiver” for this year.  These scores “won’t count”. Right. If the test doesn’t count, then why take it?  Teachers not only have to teach an entirely new set of standards, but they must also teach the old ones for a while just to make sure their students don’t look bad on a test that is wholly unnecessary. Makes sense to me.

You guessed it – It gets better.  Not only are there two sets of standards, a new test that doesn’t exist yet, and an old test that won’t go away, but many states are implementing the new standards at a pace that doesn’t allow enough time for school districts and teachers to properly develop curriculum based on the CCSS.  Why is that a problem?  Primarily because standards are not documents that teachers are actually supposed to teach from.  Standards are written to provide school districts with minimum requirements for developing curricula that provide teachers with a guide for lesson planning.  Standards —> Curriculum —> Lesson Plans – in that order.  Since the CCSS are being adopted at warp factor 5, the development of curriculum is either been skipped entirely or is occurring at a breakneck pace.  Many teachers have no idea what good CCSS instruction looks like because they have been handed the standards and told “good luck”, while in other places, school districts are trying to do right by their teachers by creating curricula for them to follow.  Unfortunately, because this is happening so quickly, many districts are misinterpreting “common standards” for “common teaching”.  In other words they are handing teachers a script instead of a guide, which is actually far worse than just handing them the standards and wishing them luck.

There may be only one way to change the oil on a 1996 Oldsmobile, or fill out the cover page on a TPS report, but when it comes to teaching a room full of students, there is never, ever going to be only one “right” way to get the job done.  Period.  Ever.  Not gonna happen.  And it is the high performing teachers who should worry about these scripts the most.  One reason for scripting lessons for teachers is to make bad teachers better, the theory being that if you can force all teachers to do the same thing, then the bad teachers can only be as bad as the scripted lessons. Okay, but the exact opposite is true for the high performing teachers, who can only be as good as the script.  Taking away the autonomy of many of our highest performing teachers, at a time when their talent and ability has never been needed more, most certainly gives them something to worry about.  This isn’t happening everywhere, but it is happening in enough schools to make it a serious problem.

And perhaps the greatest irony in telling teachers not to worry is that their administrators are currently being trained in a performance evaluation system that hasn’t even been approved yet!  Since the states sold their constitutional souls to Arne Duncan and the federal government in order to get a NCLB waiver, they must now get their plans for teacher evaluation approved by the same people who brought you the epic failure known as “Race to the Top”.  Of the 34 states who are waiting on Big Brother Arne to approve their plans, only 12 have been accepted.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for anything from the federal government.

These are only some of the problems that teachers are rightfully concerned about when it comes to evaluating their performance.  We know they are worried because we asked them.  Over 1,300 of them actually.  Even if increasing accountability will somehow improve teaching, our leaders are also screwing it up so badly that the teachers who have almost no control over the evaluation process are being set up to fail by a system that is incomplete, hastily implemented, and almost laughably unfair. So please don’t tell them not to worry.

Comments

  1. In this “age of accountability,” RESPONSIBILITY has been left out of the discussion. The responsibility for our children’s educations has been taken out of the hands of those who have been trained to do it – teachers. Instead, we teachers are being “held accountable” for something over which we have had no control in creating. It’s a system set up to fail, and teachers will continue to be labelled as the “failures” until we stand up as cry “No foul!”

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I wish every single person who has any kind of leadership role in education in Arkansas could read this. The lack of a scripted curriculum is one of the primary reasons that I chose to work at the district that I did, but I’m afraid that when or if I ever need to change jobs to advance my career, I’ll get stuck in a district with a prescribed curriculum and I’ll start to hate my career choice. Thanks for so accurately portraying teachers’ feelings in this post!