Education Opinion

Cutting Edge or Blunt Instrument?

By Susan Graham — November 05, 2009 4 min read
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I don’t need any new kitchen knives, but when a former student or kid from church calls and asks to come do a knife demonstration I watch one more time. I warn them that while I won’t buy another knife, but I am happy to let them practice their presentation on me and to offer them a critique on their sales pitch. So every summer I watch and am asked to evaluate just how effectively those fine knives can cut through rope with a single stroke and how powerful those all purpose kitchen shears must be to cut a penny in half. And while I watch, I wonder: When and why would I need a kitchen knife that slices rope? We almost never have rope for dinner. Under what circumstances I would I cut up my spare change? I usually put it my pocket.

Still, it’s a smart presentation design because the focus is on the tools, not the skill of person doing the demonstration. This makes sense, because while the knives are really are high quality tools, the college-age sales representatives often have more enthusiasm than knife handling skill. In fact, I can vividly recall the night that night Amy came to do the demonstration. While she cut the rope with a single stroke, she also managed to slice open her finger. She bled all over my kitchen table; she nearly pass out; and it took us half an hour to get her bandaged, cleaned up and calmed down.

These home sales demonstrations that supposedly evaluate the efficacy of kitchen knives can provide insight into why teachers are a bit skeptical of the accolades heaped on some of the new teacher evaluation systems by education reformers. Excellent tools are important; but sometimes it’s more important to make sure a tool is appropriate for the job. And, no matter how good the tool and how well intended and highly motivated the user may be, the outcome is still dependent of that individual’s knowledge and skill. Two new teacher evaluation scenarios in Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut have received a great deal of media attention lately, so let’s take a look at those. A spokesperson for DC schools says,

What saves IMPACT is that it’s clear for both teachers and evaluators. . . . There is no way a teacher can say, ‘I don’t understand how they expect me to plan lessons.’ It’s all there: setting ambitious and measurable goals, aligning each lesson with content standards, communicating goals to students.” Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin educational leadership expert, said IMPACT was “sophisticated, well thought through and, if executed well, will represent one of the most rigorous systems in the country.”
Sounds like a good thing, but the Washington Teachers’ Union is wary of IMPACT. Why? Because, the Washington Teachers Union has limited confidence in the skill of the those who will use the tool and have what seems to be legitimate concerns that a good evaluation tool can, and might be, used inappropriately. They are concerned about that “if executed well”part. Some would say that unions are just like that-- resistant to accountability and protective of their least effective members. But while WTU is locked in a bitter battle over teacher evaluation with D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, it’s sister AFT affliate represents teachers in New Haven, Connecticut where

The politically savvy American Federation of Teachers has decided that it is better to get in the game. In New Haven, the union has agreed in its new contract to develop an evaluation system in collaboration with the city. Secretary Duncan praised the agreement lavishly.

So what’s the difference? It seems to me that the issue is not so much the instrument, but rather the credibility of the evaluators and the degree of trust that the evaluation results will be objective and that the outcome will be used appropriately. My good friend, Renee Moore, teaches in Mississippi, where there is no union collective bargaining for teachers. When she recently sat on a panel for the Forum for Education and Democracy’s Capitol Hill briefing. Renee said that

My comments focused on what I believe are two closely related reasons why we do not have quality teachers for all students, particularly for those in high needs, high poverty areas: ineffective teacher evaluation and weak professional development/support..... The true culprit appears to be the what passes for teacher evaluation in most places. Apparently, we do not have systems that accurately identify teacher effectiveness or the degree of that effectiveness. Rigorous evaluation systems would not only identify quality teaching, but give each teacher a realistic, timely assessment of his/her work, identifying areas or strength and weakness; thereby, guiding professional development and support needs.

This is why teachers submit themselves to processes such as National Board for Professional Teaching Standards assessment, even when they have to pay for the process out of their own pocket and receive no additional compensation for this validation of their expertise. That’s why it’s frustrating when an editorial on the New Haven contract in the New York Times cautions that,

School reformers were excited to hear that New Haven planned to take student performance into account in its teacher evaluations. But they uttered a collective “uh-oh” upon hearing that the details -- including how much weight would be given to student performance -- would be hashed out by a committee that includes teachers and administrators.... Political leaders, school administrators, parents and everyone else who cares about improving education in this country will have to keep a close eye as this effort moves forward.

Now that confuses me. Does the writer really believe that teachers are obstructionists who have no stake in advancing teacher quality? Did he do his investigative work, asking teachers what they thought? Or did he just parrot what some school reform pundit told him?Teachers are regularly accused of just caring about the money and protecting their own jobs, but let’s not forget that there’s serious money to be made in school reform. In order to get press, prestige, power, and a paycheck as a reformer, you need to frame the problem and come up with a solution. Teachers are an easy mark because there are a lot of us and if you ever had a bad one, you’ll never forget it. But, after the children, who pay the highest price for all the adult bickering, teachers have the most to lose. Yet,

Teachers, it turns out, are tougher on each other than anyone else, That’s one of the lessons of Toledo’s 25-year-old peer-review program, in which veteran teachers sift out the timid, disorganized, or otherwise unfit. Today some 70 NEA and AFT districts--mostly in California, Connecticut, and Ohio--use the approach. Teachers, least of all it seems, want to share the lunchroom with someone who can’t hack it in the classroom.

I believe most teachers value meaningful assessment of their practice, and a well designed and thoughtfully administered evaluation can be the cutting edge tool to accomplish that goal. When that evaluation comes from peers, it sets a level of expectation for all participants, it creates an opportunity for meaningful professional sharing and growth, and it empowers skilled classroom practitioners to become part of the answer by giving them ownership of their profession. But, teachers have a legitimate concern that best cutting edge evaluation tool, when placed in unskilled or unbiased hands, could turn out to be nothing more than a blunt object for teacher bashing.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.