Evaluating “white-space” educators. . .

I was poking around the blog of my favorite arch-enemy Jay Greene—whose book Education Myths is one of the most offensive and inaccurate portrayals of life in the classroom ever to stumble out of a right-wing chop shop—the other day and came across this interesting bit by guest blogger Matthew Ladner.

In it, Ladner takes a sharp turn away from Greene’s unwavering support of using student test scores as an indicator of teacher performance and as a criteria for performance pay programs by exploring the career contributions of professional basketball player Shane Battier—a guy who doesn’t tear it up in the statistics column but who plays for champions year after year.

Ladner argues that Battier is a “white-space” employee—-one of those people who get important things done, but goes overlooked because their contributions are difficult to measure.  When comparing Battier to teachers, he writes:

Is there an education angle here? Yes indeed. Battier is what business guys call a “white space” employee. The term refers to the space between boxes on an organizational chart. A white space employee is someone who does whatever it takes to achieve organizational goals and makes the organization work much better as a whole.

As we move into the era of value-added analysis for teacher merit pay, this article provides much food for thought. School leaders must consider carefully what they will reward, and give some consideration to how white space behavior is rewarded.

Rewards should not just be based on individual learning gains- reaching school wide goals should also be strongly rewarded. Otherwise my incentive as a math teacher will be to assign six hours of math homework a night- and to hell with everyone else (see Iverson, Allen).

These ideas are intriguing to me simply because they ring true.  The contributions that I make—both to the students in my classroom and to the faculty members in my building—-stretch far beyond the results of the end of grade exams that I give each spring.

I’m the guy that’s here 14 hours a day doing anything from coaching kids to reading professional literature and working to bring structure to the work of our learning teams.  I’m an idea guy, crafting instructional strategies that others often embrace and tailor to their own settings.

Some of that work has to be making a difference, don’t you think?

But when you look at my test scores, I’m the worst teacher on the hallway.

In the comment section of his entry, Ladner goes on to explain how “white-space” work can be rewarded in schools.  He writes:

Of course, principals should also be judged based upon the overall gains of their schools. When they are, principals will have a strong incentive to reward white space employees.

This makes sense to me because if principals are held directly accountable for measurable gains, they’re going to have to work a whole lot harder to figure out which “white space” employees are having the most impact, aren’t they?

In my experience, principals rarely understand the impact of individual faculty members beyond the “this guy’s a team player” conclusions drawn from gut reactions and chance encounters in the hallway between classes.  Clearly that’s not a sophisticated approach to evaluating the contributions of teachers beyond tests.

Now for the real question, though: Do most principals have the skill and ability to identify white space impacts?

(I’ve certainly never worked for a statistician!)

And if not, how can we support the development of those kinds of observational skills in our building leaders?