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,
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
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
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,
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,
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.