Do you hear what I hear: Listening to teachers

It’s always refreshing to me to be among other teachers, exchanging ideas. I’ve spent an interesting couple of days with teachers, administrators, and representatives from an unlikely mix of education reform groups at a conference sponsored by the Gates Foundation in Arizona. I came to present with two of my co-authors about our book, TEACHING 2030 (which was warmly received by educators present). Dozens of them came to us afterwards with questions and thanks for a vision of what could be in American public education and for giving a welcome and hopeful action plan to counter the litany of the problems and attacks we been experiencing.

What was even more fascinating to me were the ideas and information I gathered from the teachers at this meeting. Much of the talk among us was about teacher evaluation systems: the good, the bad, and the ugly. One of those discussions was with a group of excited teachers from Tulsa who bragged about how teachers there—through the leadership of their local union—had developed their new teacher evaluation instrument. Originally field tested with over 35 indicators, teachers and administrators later pared it down to a more manageable and effective 20 items.

According to the Tulsa teachers I met, the new system is not only more effective, but has resulted in eye-opening, and sometimes painful, revelations for many teachers who used to get routinely “satisfactory” ratings based on the old much more subjective system. The teachers argued that the clarity, transparency, and consistency of the new system made it easier for teachers to see where they really needed to improve their classroom practice. During that same breakfast chat, however, they also realized that they needed to do more to help inform more teachers across the district that the new evaluation was credible because of how it was created.

A little later, a teacher from another city explained how she shares the teacher evaluation criteria in her district with her high school students, so they can have a better understanding of what her job really is. I thought: “What an empowering idea for students, and wouldn’t that be great to share with parents as well.”

On the other hand, teachers from several parts of the country talked about how the evaluation rubrics and classroom observation protocols used in their districts do not take classroom context and teacher knowledge of students into account. These are critical weaknesses for a teacher evaluation system. Truly effective teaching is highly contextual, and highly accomplished teaching starts with deep knowledge of each student, as evidenced in the standards for certification by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (who were also part of this meeting). As one teacher from Memphis noted: “To properly evaluate a teacher, a principal or observer would have to know the evaluation rubric or checklist thoroughly enough to know what it does not include, and be well-trained enough in classroom evaluation to know what questions to ask before and after the observation.” Barnett Berry, president of Center for Teaching Quality, pointed out that “the modal year [sic] of experience for public school teachers in America is now one (1), as opposed to 20 years ago, when it was 15 [years].” If so many of our most vulnerable students are being taught by our least experienced teachers, how does that reality affect their students? Should those teachers be evaluated or expected to carry the same load as those who have demonstrated ability to work effectively with students, particularly in high-needs schools?

Mind you, these discussions were taking place against the backdrop of the release of teacher performance data in NYC (see more extensive commentary on that from my New York colleagues Ariel Sacks and Jose Vilson). I wondered how useful that data would actually be for parents or teachers. Was the release preceded or accompanied by a clear explanation of how the data was obtained, and what it really represents? Probably not.

I was dismayed that some teachers at this event still misunderstood what “value-added measures” are, the many different formulas by which those are obtained, and what makes that data so inherently unstable. If teachers ourselves are still not clear on these topics, how can we help parents and policymakers understand them? Happily, the teachers do understand and earnestly accept that it is our responsibility to move our students’ learning forward while they are in our care, and that the real measure of our effectiveness is student learning, not just student achievement.

The Gates Foundation’s stated purpose for hosting the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) Conference was to show that “teachers’ voices matter.” How closely they and other policy-influencers/policy makers listen to teachers remains to be seen. Diane Ravitch, among others, have made major shifts in their thinking about what is needed (or not) in public education. Bill Gates’ recent public statement against the publication of teacher performance data in NYC, and his admission that value-added measures are not a reliable measure of teacher effectiveness suggests he and the Foundation may be learning that real education reform is not possible unless and until we do listen to teachers.

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