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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Maddie vs. Michelle, Whoopi, and Campbell

By Guest Blogger — August 12, 2014 6 min read
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Note: Maddie Fennell, a literacy coach for the Omaha Public Schools, is guest posting this week.

Yesterday I started at the 50,000 foot level talking about systemic change. Today, I want to get a bit lower and go into more detail about what needs to be changed and by whom. So let’s start with an easy one - tenure (I know, I am so funny!).

EVERYONE has an opinion about tenure, but very few actually know what it is; honestly, not even a lot of teachers do. In Nebraska, I’m described as a liberal Democrat, and I’m married to a relatively conservative Republican attorney (socially liberal, not Tea Party but RED) who received a degree in secondary education but never taught. One night as I was working on the NEA Commission Report, my hubby and I had a discussion (OK, it was a very heated argument for a bit) about tenure. He is good at helping me “sharpen the sword,” and we both finally realized a few things:

1) Tenure is NOT a job for life. You CAN fire a tenured teacher, but I will admit right away that, in too many places, it has become ridiculously cumbersome.

2) Teachers want (and must have) the right to due process as provided for in the Constitution. Black’s Law Dictionary defines due process as "...fundamental fairness and substantial justice.” Due process is both substantive, which means that you have protection from arbitrary and unreasonable action (so people can’t just make stuff up to take away basic liberties), and procedural, which means that the process must be followed appropriately (please note, I have translated these from legalese; you can google the more precise definitions).

If we are going to transform the American education system, we need innovators. Brene’ Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College Of Social Work, says, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” We tell our students that failure is good if it helps them grow. This year, I plan to show students this great video on people whose failure led to tremendous success.

But today we have an environment that stifles teacher creativity. I know so many teachers who are terrified to try anything new for fear that their test scores will drop and they will be labeled a failing teacher. And I know many GREAT teachers who are quietly defying the rules “under the radar” and having success, but not telling folks what they are really doing for fear of retribution for not “following the script.” This summer at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year conference, Secretary Duncan told us that he asks his kids, “What did you fail at today?” Teachers need to be able to ask each other that to grow our profession also!

I have benefited from that “fundamental fairness and substantial justice.” I AM a good teacher; in fact, I am a master teacher by multiple indicators and I would NOT have my job today if it wasn’t for due process. Advocating for kids and colleagues meant challenging the system, and those who wanted to maintain the status quo - in both the administration and the union - didn’t want to change. I pushed against the system - and the system pushed back! But thanks to due process, I wasn’t fired and I was able to continue to have a positive impact in the lives of my students.

But I admit there are big problems with our evaluation systems. What are they?

Well, let’s start with the fact that, we - teachers - gave up our role as the quality control guardians of our own profession when we ceded all authority for observation and evaluation to administrators. One of the basic tenets of any profession is that you control who comes in and who comes out of your profession. Teachers do neither, and we need to change that. We must have a greater role in the pre-service education and induction of our future colleagues by raising the bar, not lowering it! And we need to suck it up and realize that we have a professional obligation to participate in Peer Assistance and Review programs that are structured to maintain the quality of our profession. If you won’t stand up to maintain a high quality of practitioners in our profession, how do you call yourself a real professional?

We have allowed evaluation to become a mess (this summer I actually heard Charlotte Danielson say, “I hate teacher evaluations”). That ‘WE’ includes administrators, school boards, legislators, teachers, and unions. Neither the old systems nor the new systems are doing what we need them to. Due process shouldn’t be cumbersome; should a teacher fail to improve after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so, both management and the union should consider it their duty to facilitate the process in the best interests of students. When determining what is “reasonable,” we must err on the side of what is best for students.

But you also can’t judge whether or not someone is a good teacher solely or even principally by their test scores. Making test scores the predominant or deciding factor in an evaluation is lazy and stupid.

If you want to know if someone is a good teacher, you have to look at multiple factors. Look at their standardized summative assessments, but also look at formative assessments; in other words, can you see a pattern of growth? Administrators and peers trained in good observation and evaluation skills need to conduct observations multiple times and provide substantive feedback. Look at student work - I had a special education student who failed every test, but he was the only student in the class who could take apart and reassemble a motor. We know that teachers must encourage learning that goes beyond the mere acquisition of academic knowledge. Are students developing “grit” and skills in cooperation, healthy lifestyles, and basic kindness? Are students challenged, and do parents feel involved and integral to the learning team?

Rick does a great job laying out the need for both accountability and authority in his upcoming book The Cage-Busting Teacher. If you have an evaluation system that was developed with all stakeholders, that looks at multiple indicators, and that promotes professional development, then those on the higher end of the accountability scale should be given greater autonomy in their practice and greater authority in their leadership (building, district, etc.). For those who are shown to be struggling, you need to get in there and look deeper, provide assistance and possibly more structure, and, if needed, begin the process of removing them from the classroom.

Teachers, it’s time for us to claim the moral authority - and professional responsibility - for evaluation. This year I begin my 25th year as a teacher and I also turn 50 in October. I have literally dedicated half of my life to kids that I have taught, cajoled, nurtured, disciplined, cried with, celebrated with, and even taken into my home (my husband jokes that we should have bought a Holiday Inn instead of a house!). I have a master’s degree plus endorsements, led a national commission on education reform, served as president of my union, was honored as the Nebraska Teacher of the Year and am in my second year as a US Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

I cite my resume to ask: Who do you think knows more about what needs to be changed in regards to tenure, evaluation and the teaching profession - me and fellow accomplished teachers, or Michelle Rhee/Whoopi Goldberg/Campbell Brown et al.?

Rick has the right answer in his book: “When policymakers tug at the crude levers at their disposal and administrators seem content to cram new evaluation systems into yesterday’s schools, it’s cage-busting teachers who need to offer better, smarter solutions.”

--Maddie Fennell

Disclaimer: As Maddie noted above, she wears many hats, but these comments are not the official statements of anyone; they are her personal opinions that she may change any time if she is convinced!

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.