-By Mark Stefanik
Having just experienced the new teacher evaluation process in my district, I’ve had my fears confirmed. It is a coercive instrument whose first purpose is not to improve teachers, but to control them. It is a negative metric which creates and seeks flaws. It is a checklist for ‘Wuzza’ teachers who have mutated into administrative hacks. It is a template for mediocrity.
Under the grand banner of improving public education, the pinky-ringed wizards of Springfield enacted a law that turned an essential truth – that teachers are the most important element in schooling – on its head. If there’s something wrong with schools, there must be something wrong with teachers. Put another way, a simpleton’s syllogism swayed the sages of the statehouse:
There are problems with public education.
Teachers are the most important element in schools.
Therefore, there are problems with teachers.
Oh, the ideas that this bit of reckless reasoning inspired. Oh, the strange bedfellows it rallied. Billionaire dilettantes linked arms with working class mothers. Tax policy conservatives swayed PTA parents into charter school advocates. Union bashers recruited the voiceless and disenfranchised, the very folks that unions protected.
Forget inadequate funding. Forget socio-economic factors. Forget prejudice. Ignorance and Want gave the politicos an early Christmas present. A consensus swept the land. Fix the teachers and we fix our schools.
And so, in 2011, SB7 was born. It went right to the heart of the teacher problem.
We’ll make teachers better by diminishing their rights and protections, and, it only follows, that this will improve the classrooms. Which will improve our kids. Which will secure our futures. Yada-Yada-Yada.
A key to this improvement would be the state codified Teacher Evaluation Plan, a colossal cluster of criteria adapted by each school district.
If you believe that this approach will be used to improve teachers, then you must believe that the City of Chicago’s restaurant code is designed to make 3 star restaurants into 4 star ones.
The codes, standards, and regulations look good on paper, but the devil awaits in their execution. With a surfeit of regs, the city can shut down any establishment it wants to. With a surfeit of standards, an administrator can silence or remove any teacher. That’s the beauty of a negative metric, at least for the evaluators. Flaws can be found anywhere. Excellence can be minimized, or as is the case with most Evaluation tools, omitted.
Is a teacher at fault when only 20 of 25 students participate in a 45 minute class discussion? Is this a sensible criteria when the evaluator judges that teacher by only 1 period in an entire school year?
Is a teacher at fault when her Math classroom must also double as a science room and the requisite marble topped wooden tables are not conducive to modular desk arrangements?
Is a teacher at fault when the theory behind a class activity, even though it was thoroughly discussed in a post-observation meeting, is not provided in writing?
The list of petty applications of the plan is as long as the plan itself. I have offered only a sample of the supposedly constructive criticism of the teachers’ classroom management and curriculum design. The metrics for “Professionalism” would require their own column. Let’s just leave it at this: Whatever cockamamie project your boob of a principal wants you to do on your time had better be done. Her ‘career’ rests on you.
Speaking of principals or administrators or assistants, their roles in this farce bear examination. If we account for all of the stake-holders in a school district, who benefits from these eval plans?
The students? Hardly. The major flawed assumption of this entire mess is that they will benefit from the diminishment of a teacher’s rights and autonomy.
The teachers? This should be obvious.
The parents? They’re not getting transparency. They’re getting diversions based upon bad data and disingenuous interpretations of student and school performances.
The taxpayers? They are getting the short term benefits of a cheaper work force (out with the wise; in with the inexperienced) at the long term costs of a morale-gutted and visionless faculty. Even if they don’t care about the schools, they should certainly be aware of the relationship between the schools and their property values.
Whose left? The administrators, of course. They’re the big winners. More power. More false measures with which to deceive. It’s the old story of the Emperor’s new clothes, re-imagined where the School Board is the Emperor and the managers to whom they have entrusted the well-being of their district are ambitious charlatans, most of whom couldn’t sharpen pencils in a good teacher’s classroom.
What will it take to challenge the myth that administrators were formerly the best teachers? This, too, would make another column.
Finally, let’s not underestimate the damage being done. There is only so much time in the day. Considering time as a commodity, we can apply the economic principal of opportunity costs. For every hour spent on satisfying administrative needs for forms, one hour less will be spent on preparing thoughtful activities for students. For every hour spent collaborating with colleagues on how best to explain to administrators what it is we do, one hour less is being spent on getting better at what we do. For every mediocre evaluation received, the seeds are being planted, not for creative and risk-taking lesson planning, but for plans that will meet the crushing and petty and gap-filled expectations of these current instruments.
Make no mistake. These new tools will change things.
I fear for my grandchildren.