To: The North Carolina Legislature

From: Bill Ferriter – 6th Grade Classroom Teacher

Date: January 4, 2014

RE: Introducing Competition to the Teacher Evaluation Process

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Dear Honorable Leaders of our State Legislature,

As a passionate classroom teacher AND a passionate reality television fan, I wanted to make you aware of a Spike Television show that I believe may be instructive as you work to reimagine the teacher compensation system here in North Carolina.  Called Ink Master, the show pits 20 tattoo artists against one another in regular competitions designed to test their  line-work, lettering and shading skills all while applying tattoos in varying styles to human canvases — volunteers who offer up their skin in exchange for free tats from a competitor.

As I’m sure you can imagine, each episode of Ink Master is riveting — full of human drama on par with Honey Boo Boo, The Jersey Shore and The Deadliest Catch.  In fact, I would go as far as to argue that Ink Master is JUST as engaging as Moonshiners, Discovery’s hit series spotlighting the illicit hootch-making and bootlegging happening right here in North Carolina’s mountains.

Watch the most recent season, for example, and you’ll see Tatu Baby — a front-runner passionate about realistic artwork —  wrestle to complete New School designs against seasoned pros like Jime Litwalk and Hollywood Hamilton.  You’ll find yourself rooting for Jason Clay Dunn, whose social anxiety disorder makes it difficult to ever feel completely comfortable with clients.  And you’ll end up either loving or hating Josh Hibbard, an arrogant artist who can’t draw, but finds himself in the final four because his final products are worth admiring.

If you’ve never seen Ink Master before, be sure to pay particular attention to the Flash Challenge that happens at the beginning of each show.  Artists are given a short window of time to complete a simple task — think carving a Dia de los Muertos design on a donated human skull with a drill-mounted Dremel –to demonstrate an isolated skill.  While no one is eliminated at the end of Flash Challenges, they are INCREDIBLY important simply because the winner of these initial challenges gets to LITERALLY assign human canvasses to his or her competitors during each episode’s Elimination Challenge.

Sadly, that singular advantage causes more than one competitor to make choices that are morally wrong.

Rather than working to pair the right artist with the right human canvas to ensure that every volunteer leaves with a remarkable tattoo, the winner of nearly every Flash Challenge uses his advantage to put his peers at a disadvantage.  The results are troubling:  Loving grandmothers who want tributes to their grandchildren emblazoned on their outer-thighs end up paired with artists who specialize in tattooing portraits of Peterbilts on grizzled truckers and hipsters who want their favorite frappuccino emblazoned on their biceps end up paired with artists who specialize in tattooing woodland fairies on Wiccans.

I know.  It’s shocking.  But it’s human nature in action, isn’t it?  

Can we REALLY be surprised when people who are in competition with one another look for ways to make their peers miserable?  In fact, in competitive situations, we would expect nothing less.  That’s why we don’t cringe when Jackie “Ink B*tch” Collins makes Mystical Mike tackle a mechanical tattoo that we know is going to be darn near impossible for him to pull off given his experience and skill set.  She’s trying to win $100 K and a spread in Ink’d magazine.  He’s standing in her way.  She’d be crazy NOT to make things hard on him.

We also don’t cringe because we don’t REALLY care whether Mystical Mike can finish an entire twelve-cylinder engine on the back of an overly-tan female bodybuilder, do we.  The drama is fun to watch, but Mike’s success or failure isn’t going to change OUR life in a meaningful way.  If the overly-tan female bodybuilder walks away with a few missing pistons, it’s clearly her fault for trying to get a free tattoo from some nitwit that the networks tried to turn into a television star.  And if Mystical Mike falls short of the standards set for him by Ink Master’s Dave Navarro — yes, THAT Dave Navarro — the worst that can happen is he’ll pack up his kit and head home.

The question that I want you to consider, however, is are you SURE that introducing this same kind of competition to the teacher evaluation process is going to improve instruction for EVERY kid in North Carolina’s classrooms?  

To state it more simply, when you force teachers to compete against each other for contracts and pay raises, aren’t they JUST as likely to go all ‘Ink B*tch’ on the ‘Mystical Mikes’ in their buildings?  Won’t the kinds of collaborative practices that result in highly effective instructional strategies spreading across hallways literally die as soon as teachers stop seeing peers as partners and start seeing peers as competitors fighting for the $500 raises and four year contracts that you are offering?  And if THAT happens — if teachers stop working together to better serve EVERY child and start worrying only about the kids assigned to THEIR classes — won’t SOME students walk away from our schools with the intellectual equivalent of really bad tattoos?

My guess is that the answers to these questions is yes — and that’s worth worrying about.



Related Radical Reads:

Three Reasons North Carolina’s Plans to Pay Teachers are a REALLY Bad Idea

Here’s Why Competition Doesn’t Work in Public Education

Leadership Lessons Learned from Bridezillas

Blagojevich and Education’s Sad Reality

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