Friday, November 8, 2013

Has That Teacher Taught?

In a conversation the other day with my daughter's principal, I asked her how they evaluate teachers and hold them accountable. What's the procedure if a teacher is just not cutting it? How do you go about getting rid of them?

It's pretty well-documented, I think, that one of the big Achilles' heels for the public school system is their inability to get rid of bad teachers. And everybody knows who the bad teachers are. When I was a teacher, I knew. As a parent, I knew. As a student, I knew. Surely, the administrators know, too.  Yet the bad apples stay.

I remember being evaluated by my building principal during my years teaching in Hutchinson.  She would come in two or three times a year and observe me in the classroom. She also knew about any discipline problems I had because when kids were sent to the office from my class, the office they went to was hers. We also just talked a lot casually and she knew what I was doing, for the most part (she was a former English teacher and always curious).

A couple times a year, I had to meet with her formally for a performance evaluation. There were forms she had to fill out. I don't remember everything on the form (I may have one packed away in storage somewhere), but there were things like . . . did I plan my lessons well ahead of time? Did my plans follow the Madeline Hunter model? Was I well-composed in front of my students? Did I command their attention? Did I play well with others (that is, work well with the rest of the department)? One year, she commented that I had called on girls twice as much as boys in the class she observed. I thought it interesting that she took the time to tally that up with everything else happening in the room to be observed . . . but okay.  Good to know -- I'll work on that.

One thing I don't recall being noted on any of the forms she had to fill out: did my students learn?  Maybe it was there. But if it was, it certainly wasn't emphasized. Hopefully, she just knew my kids were learning and didn't need to bring it up.  But I wasn't always sure . . .

Now, I realize that this was twenty years ago, long before No Child Left Behind, which was an effort to correct this exact fault in school systems -- and we saw how well that worked. But really, the fact remains that if a student hasn't learned, then the teacher hasn't taught, and there should be some accountability for that.

I contend that one of the biggest problems with the way we end up evaluating student learning -- and therefore teacher performance -- is that we expect too much uniformity.  All students should know this information at this age.  All students should be able to master this skill by the end of this grade. Cookie cutter education. That doesn't fit reality.

A friend of mine went through some difficult times personally in the couple years before she put her son into kindergarten. She knew he was behind other kids his age in knowledge and skills because of her inability to give him the attention he needed to learn those things during those years, but she also knew he was smart. He started picking up those skills very quickly once he was in school.  But, when the first set of standardized state evaluations hit, he was still behind where he was "supposed" to be at that point of kindergarten -- even though he had been making progress in leaps and bounds. They recommended he be put in special ed. Luckily, she knew her son well enough to know that was ridiculous and pulled him out to put him in another school. I wonder how many kindergarteners and first graders end up in special ed and stigmatized perhaps for the rest of their lives for the same reason.

I also wonder how that teacher was evaluated. Was it counted against her that this boy failed to meet the mid-year requirements? Or was it counted to her credit that he was so much closer to those requirements than he was when he walked in her door in August?

So, teacher evaluation: it's important. It's critical. It has to be done well. I have yet to find a school that has mastered this integral part of the learning process. If you know of one, I'd love to hear about it.

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