A Lesson From Paper Mills, Where the Client Comes First

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Over the past decade, an unprecedented amount of administrative time has gone into one effort: teacher evaluation. We have consumed thousands and thousands of hours by holding conferences, setting objectives, observing classrooms, and writing reports. And what has been the reward for these long, grinding, and often stressful, hours?

Have the best teachers been systematically identified and rewarded?

Have the poorest teachers been weeded out and removed?

Have the average teachers--that great majority of competent and dedicated individuals--been given encouragement and help?

We don't need lengthy research studies to give us the answers. They are clearly, no, no, and no again. Very little of a positive nature has come out of those endless hours watching, judging, advising, and writing. Were it not that evaluation has a life of its own in education, we probably would have done away with it long ago. But evaluation is to educators what mother and apple pie are to the rest of the world.

What, then, is the answer? Shall we scrap our teacher-evaluation programs? It's unlikely that the public will let us do that. Shall we begin again? Certainly not. We're too far down the road for that already. I believe that we need to stop and consider what we really wish to achieve through evaluation. Then we can modify existing programs to produce results that are worth the costly hours we spend on them.

We need to pause and ask: What is the purpose? Why do we evaluate teachers? I believe that evaluation has to do with quality. Like any other kind of evaluation, the evaluation of teachers is carried out for the purpose of maintaining or improving their performance. In industry, such a process is often called "quality control" or "quality assurance."

I have a friend who works for a paper mill near where I live in western Massachusetts. His job title is "Quality Assurance Officer," and his duty is to see that the products that his factory manufactures meet the standards required by his customers. With "quality assurance" his customers come first.

Suppose we change the name of "teacher evaluation" to "quality assurance." How would that help? First, the new title identifies a desired outcome, quality, rather than a process, evaluation. Second, it replaces a word which has inescapably negative connotations (evaluation: "I have been judged, and found wanting"), with a word that connotes a positive and generally agreed-upon value (quality). Third, and perhaps most important, the new name expands the narrow notion of judging teachers to encompass the entire range of activities that affect quality. (So long as teachers believe that they are being singled out to bear the burden of the accountability movement, they will surely resent it.)

How would a program of "quality assurance" differ from our current "teacher-evaluation" programs? Let's look at my friend in the paper mill.

To "assure quality," he uses two separate approaches. The first is selection: He tests the products as they come off the production line, accepting those that meet the standard and rejecting those that don't. The second approach is development: He improves and refines methods of production in order to assure the continuing quality of the products.

In his work, these two tasks are defined clearly and under-taken separately, but in most teacher-evaluation programs the two become one and are carried on together.

And it doesn't work. The goals of the two approaches are contradictory, and thus the benefits that either activity might achieve are canceled out by the other, leaving only a depressing deficit.

For example, most administrators agree that their primary goal in evaluating teachers is to help teachers improve their performance--the development approach. Teachers, recognizing the potential Sword of Damocles, are anxious and defensive about the evaluation, a state of mind hardly conducive to growth and improvement. But, administrators also know that the contracts of some of their weaker teachers should not be renewed--the teachers should be "selected out." A principal, however, is inclined to shy away from such action, to avoid being the "heavy'' who deprives a teacher and his or her family of a source of livelihood. Instead, the principal moves to the development approach, hoping that some miracle will occur to improve the teacher's performance.

Because, in most cases, teacher evaluation is carried out as a unitary procedure, neither selection nor professional development is carried out adequately. Ideally, selection and pro-fessional development should be distinct activities, carried out by different people. The person responsible for each would follow different procedures, based upon the purpose of the task. But most principals wear two hats. They are required to handle both selection and professional development at the same time.

For this problem, principals should consider one quality-assurance technique called the 10-80-10 Forced Distribution Method. By this method, the principal first calculates what number equals 10 percent of the total number of the teachers on the staff. Next, he or she identifies the 10 percent who are clearly the superior teachers and the ten percent who are the weakest teachers. The remaining 80 percent form the middle group. The 10 percent figure, of course, is only a rough guide. A principal may find more than ten percent who fit the category of "clearly superior," and he or she may find fewer than ten percent who could be called the "weakest." The actual numbers are of less consequence than how the three groups are handled.

Once the groups have been identified, the principal should consider what steps he or she might take to acknowledge and reward those in the top category and what steps should be taken to stimulate continuing professional growth for those in the middle group. Finally, the principal should consider carefully what course of action to adopt for dealing with the weakest group. Is it possible that with special help and guidance these teachers can improve their performance to the extent that you and I would be glad to have our children in their classes? Or is it more likely that for one reason or another, they should be counseled to leave teaching? This may be the most difficult decision that a principal ever has to make, but surely it is one of the most important if quality is the goal of school administrators.

I foresee howls of rage from teachers over the suggestion that they be sorted into three groups as though they were so many eggs. But I would recommend that all professional groups--doctors, lawyers, and accountants--adopt such procedures. Is a surgeon in the "bottom 10" skilled enough to remove my appendix without permanent damage to my health? Is a teacher in the "bottom 10" skilled enough to help my son read without permanent damage to his mind? When it's a matter of quality assurance, the client must come first.

Vol. 01, Issue 40, Page 24

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