My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Education Matters: Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

Amherst Bulletin - July 10, 2009


As members of the School Committees, we hear frequently about the outstanding teachers we have in our schools and occasionally about teachers who fail to live up to expectations. As parents, we know first-hand how great it is when a child spends the year with a fabulous teacher who "gets" each of the children in the classroom. Research, including work conducted by Steve, supports the belief that there are substantial differences in teacher effectiveness, even among teachers in the same school.

The essential question, therefore, is how to ensure great teaching in every classroom in our district. The obvious first step is hiring well - and one of the greatest strengths of our schools is the abundant supply of prospective teachers who desire to work in Amherst. However, it is difficult to predict who is or will be a great teacher based on easily observed characteristics, including whether a teacher has a master's degree, the score on a licensing exam, or the type of college a teacher attended (a local college, state university or private school). In sum, it is simply very difficult to identify the great teacher on the basis of credentials and brief interviews.

Professional development for teachers provides another means to foster excellent instruction. Mentoring and other training programs have the potential to improve classroom management skills and expand knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy. Unfortunately, although research shows that strong programs can improve the quality of instruction, particularly for new teachers, the effects appear to be modest for most.

We believe these findings reflect the multi-dimensional nature of the skills required to be an excellent teacher. It is not enough to be very knowledgeable about mathematics, science, history or English, or even all four; it is not enough to understand theories of child development and pedagogy; it is not enough to understand and empathize with children with diverse backgrounds; it is not enough to be a supportive team player. A teacher must master each of these and other skills to excel in the classroom.

If outstanding teachers are difficult to identify at the time of hiring and the benefits of professional development are limited, rigorous evaluation prior to promotion with tenure becomes a crucial component to ensuring high quality instruction. However, recent research conducted by The New Teachers Project suggests that schools across the country fail to conduct rigorous performance-based evaluations, and that nearly three in four teachers report receiving no specific feedback on how to improve their teaching at their last evaluation. Moreover, almost no teachers (less than 1 percent) receive unsatisfactory evaluations, even in schools in which students repeatedly fail to meet academic standards. The absence of meaningful evaluation almost certainly diminishes the experience of children in those schools.

We have both participated in the tenure process as junior faculty seeking tenure, as outside reviewers of tenure cases at other institutions, and as department chairs involved in the evaluation of junior colleagues. It is a stressful process for untenured faculty - we have had our teaching observed by senior colleagues and received candid comments from both our students and our colleagues on our effectiveness (or lack there of) in the classroom. The evaluation of a junior colleague is particularly awkward as one moves from mentor and sometimes friend to supervisor. It is therefore tempting to overlook deficiencies to avoid the unpleasantness involved in the denial of tenure. Yet such a lowering of the bar reduces the quality of instruction and the likelihood of sitting in a room with that fabulous teacher.

We've already seen that shrinking budgets lead to program cuts and larger classes, and persistent budget shortfalls will likely lead to lower salary increases for teachers in the future. We believe that maintaining competitive salaries should remain a district priority. However, providing salaries that help make Amherst a desirable place to teach is not enough; we also need rigorous evaluation and high standards for tenure to ensure that those dollars translate into great teaching.

Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are members of the Amherst School Committee and Amherst College professors.


Anonymous said...

Who could argue with any of these points?!

One problem that I see is that teachers in public schools receive professional status (tenure) after 3 years of teaching - then what? - certainly teachers still need supervision/evaluation after this point in their career.

Also, time and staffing constraints at the elem and secondary levels make it difficult for the kinds of reflection and evaluation that lead to excellent teaching.

It would be helpful if somehow veteran and/or retired teachers could work as mentors in a meaningful way with junior teachers -- maybe through a sabbatical of some sort.

Fed Up Parent said...

Tenure after three years?! Unbelievable! Is that true? Was it always this way? Since my children first started school in Amherst many years ago, I have noticed a decline in education, often tied to the quality of the teacher. Many of our top-notch teachers have retired in recent years and the new crop seems more concerned with things like "getting along" than about actual learning. They also seem to be overly-concerned with the few kids in each class with behavioral issues that manage to derail the entire classroom. Are there just more of those kids now or are newer teachers less-prepared to deal with them now?

Anonymous said...

agree with fed up parent...took our child out of wildwood >10 years ago and moved to a private school because of his 4th grade teacher....all the parents complained that year like they did about this teacher every other year to the prinicple and the superattendent's office.administrators DID NOTHING...finally they moved her out of the classroom....all she did was yel at the children and humilate them...her voice carried so far she could be heard screaming all throughout the if your child did not have her..she disrupted the other classrooms so for the past 10 years she has been a specialist of some sort...this coming school year she is being put back in the classromm...why no one knows...
but good luck to the children who will have her and their parents.
my question would be after all the complaints why is she being allowed back in the classroom

Ed said...

Another response to "fed up parent":

the new crop seems more concerned with things like "getting along" than about actual learning.

A true story: I was teaching a methods course (how to teach a subject) on the graduate level in a classroom not located in the Town of Amherst (ie, not UM/AC).

I had already given rant about how I am certified to teach high school English and how I expect to see writing on at least the level of the basic 9th grader. (Evaluations came back as to how this was unreasonable as this was a reading, not writing class. Whatever...)

One student, the only male in a class of 30 (and that is another issue) turned in a lesson plan. An outline as to how he would teach children how to read. And his entire plan had to do with touchie-feelie group dynamics stuff. Nothing about the teaching of reading. Nothing.

I asked him how his detailed plan would foster the teaching of reading. I got a detailed description of fostering group dynamics and the "getting along" stuff. "Fine," I continued, "and how, exactly, is any of that relevant to children knowing how to read?"

A good educator must pick his fights, and I finally got a revised version that had one line in it about how he might try to teach the children to read in the midst of all of this. And being so ever politically correct, he is the exact type of person that Amherst would love to hire and may well be teaching here (I don't know, and FERPA would preclude me from saying if I did.)

Ed said...

Which leads to my second point:

They also seem to be overly-concerned with the few kids in each class with behavioral issues that manage to derail the entire classroom.

This is prudence, and if you read the dependent clause of your sentence first, you will see exactly why they are doing this.

You can not teach without order, if you loose control of the classroom, all opportunity for instruction is gone. Hence you must do whatever is necessary to prevent those licensed to disrupt your classroom from doing so - at the understood expense of denying the rest of the students everything.

Look at it this way: when you do CPR, there is a very real likelyhood of breaking the victim's ribs. Moreso if the victim is elderly and/or frail (eg. Michael Jackson, who did have several broken ribs from the CPR attempts to save him.)

Broken ribs don't matter because if the person dies from the heart stoppage, the broken ribs won't matter. You don't *try* to break them, but keeping blood circulating is far more important. Basic triage - same thing with ignoring the dying victim so that you can save the one who has a chance.

If the classroom is disrupted, the "good" kids learn nothing. If you can somehow keep the disruptions from occurring, they might learn something. And as something is better than nothing, you do what you can in an imperfect world.

Are there just more of those kids now or are newer teachers less-prepared to deal with them now?

Three things have happened in the past 20-40 years. First, we no longer have Belchertown State. I personally think the court made the wrong decision - it should have been "cleaned up" rather than shut down, but that is another issue. And today we instead have very expensive outplacement for students who would have been in B'Town in years back.

Second, we have gone from personal discipline to therapy. In years past the (male) authorities - father, principal, etc - would have said "son, you need to learn how to sit down and shut up" or "young lady, you are not wearing THAT in this school!" Today we have largely female authority figures who say that "it isn't your fault" and a "helping" approach toward "choices."

This is like the bipolar language/phonics debate, we have gone from fascism to anarchy and we now essentially license students to do whatever they please. (Then they come to the "freedom" of college and we are surprised about the problems each fall????)

There used to be an expectation that the students would behave themselves. Now the expectation is that the teacher will be able to encourage the students to want to behave themselves. That is a glacial shift in the duties of the classroom teacher.

Third, there no longer is any accountability - for anyone. A quarter of the high school is truant - and we don't enforce the truancy laws. Parents, who want to see their child in an outplacement, often implicitly (sometimes explicitly) encourage the child to act out so as to force the school's hand. And teachers are evaluated more on "classroom management" than education.

In such an environment, is it not quite rational for the teacher to ignore those children who behave themselves and concentrate in trying to keep the troublemakers from disrupting her classroom?

Ed said...

On the issue of tenure & review, I disagree. Or perhaps argue from a completely different dimension.

First, K-12 teachers are civil servants and not monks, Amherst High School is not Amherst College.

A place like UMass gets messy because it is a hybrid but Amherst College essentially is a free-standing institution that largely evolved out of the structure of the Catholic Church and the European tradition of free-standing monastery. Tenure has a specific meaning in this context.

K-12 schools evolved out of the local town elders hiring the municipal minister (seriously, until 1855 they did this) and then hiring educated persons (such as a young John Adams) to teach the children. And for a variety of reasons we went from the "spoils system" to the civil service system.

Excepting teaching, all civil service jobs have a 6 month probationary period. Prior to that you can fire the person for any non-discriminatory reason, after that you have to have a reason. Except for teachers where the probationary period is six times what it is for other similar public employees.

On the flip side, civil service employees can be fired for cause and often are. But teachers with tenure often can't be - even though the cause is equally compelling. (Some large cities have even gone so far as to create student-free schools to which they can assign the teachers they can't fire...)

And the worst part is that the three year probationary period RESTARTS if a teacher goes to another district. Thus teachers who would be very good somewhere else often "burn out" and are stuck in a place they don't want to be.

Throw in the attrition and the fact that significant numbers of new teachers never make it to the third year. Add the fact that many of those who do eventually become persons who ought to be doing something else. And remember that K-12 is still very much civil service.

I don't know the solution but I suggest that the issue needs to be considered within the context of the first few years. Lots of really good teachers with lots of potential are being driven out of the profession...

Anonymous said...

Great points Ed. I wish you were in charge. Your depiction of the schools is exactly why we moved our kids from the public system to the private. There is absolutely no discipline in the schools. From the teachers up to the principal, all they did was make excuses for the disruptive kids. We left and I never regretted it.

Anonymous said...

For those of us who cannot afford to leave the public system for the private, we thank Catherine and other like-minded individuals for trying to improve the situation. These comments are so depressing but so true.

Joel said...

Quoting Ed:

"A place like UMass gets messy because it is a hybrid but Amherst College essentially is a free-standing institution that largely evolved out of the structure of the Catholic Church and the European tradition of free-standing monastery. Tenure has a specific meaning in this context."

Whether this has anything to do with the issue here, I must point out that it's terribly wrong. The modern university is not based on the Catholic Church or on monasteries-- think more medieval Germany -- and tenure is an extremely modern phenomenon directly related to political and economic pressures. A couple of places created it around 1900, the AAUP proposed a formal system in 1915, but it didn't exist broadly until the McCarthy era when it was truly needed. Indeed, it was not fully functioning until a series of Supreme Court decisions in 1972.

One more fallacy in that statement is the separation between UMass and AC regarding issues e.g. tenure. I've been tenured at Williams and UMass and it's the same thing. The same rules apply once you have to protect yourself, which involve the courts. I'm a state employee, but my real protection comes via academic tenure.

Having said all that, I was also amazed at how quickly and frankly easily our public school teachers receive "professional status." It strikes me as a problematic system.

Joel said...

Just to clarify my comment, the modern university is really more a product of the end of the medieval period. It's a creature of the Enlightenment and so very much not a reflection of the Church.

Anonymous said...

I think the schools should add evaluations by parents and children's to the process. Often they have information and experiences unknown to adminstrators.

Anonymous said...

I think this is such an important and overwhelmingly true statement about parents and children having the opportunity to evaluate their teachers and child(ren)'s teachers who all have such needed and necessary information that a lot of administrators really need to know. I wonder why this policy has never been put into place. There are far many more of us who cannot afford private schools and must leave our children at the mercy of the teachers already chosen. And it's true that Belchertown State School's closing has brought many students to the public classroom that need intense one-to-one attention and may distract the flow of the otherwise ordinary daily classroom through no fault of their own of course. But, the classroom teacher has become overwhelmed her/himself and discipline is indeed a major part of today's curriculum.
Ed, you raise some excellent points, but what to do about it all is what we really need to hear. Why couldn't you set up trainings for new public classroom teachers--I so agree with all this touchie feeling talk--what ever happened to 'sit down, listen and follow the lesson I am giving you!' anyway???

Anonymous said...

Parent and student evaluation als will help administrators understand teachers' strengths and abilities, not just weaknesses.

Ed said...

Why couldn't you set up trainings for new public classroom teachers-

People who think like do aren't exactly popular in Schools of Education and hence tend usually not to be the persons tapped to conduct such trainings.

Also who is going to pay for it - even if I go as a volunteer just to put it on my CV (and I well might) who is going to pay for all the other expenses? What will make the teachers show up (and not get grieved by the union)?

You probably are going to have to pay them - and that costs money.

Not to mention the political storm that would fall on any administrator with the guts to do something like this...

Now if the VFW or the local churches or fraternal organizations was to do something like this and *invite* the newly hired teachers to come on their own time, I don't know what either the union or the school system could do about it.

Ed said...

One more fallacy in that statement is the separation between UMass and AC regarding issues e.g. tenure. I've been tenured at Williams and UMass and it's the same thing.

No, it isn't, and let me give a better example -- being tenured at UMass and being tenured at Elms' College (on the DoE "watch list" for possible bankruptcy.)

My point: Even with school choice, the Amherst School Dept has a captive audience. No matter how bad the schools get, the town taxes are still going to pay the teachers' salaries.

If Elms' College or Amherst College or Williams College goes into the toilet, inside a few years all the students will be going to someplace else, the school will be bankrupt, and tenure will mean nothing as the whole thing will be shut down.

The example was sloppy and I am not arguing that. But what I do is that tenure at a private college is not unlike making partner at a law firm -- if the firm goes bankrupt, you are gone.

And hence K-12 is different, and "tenure" is perhaps the wrong word to use for what technically is a "continuing contract."