Standards Opinion

Dystopia: A Possible Future of Teacher Evaluation

By Anthony Cody — May 16, 2013 6 min read
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Picture our public schools in the year 2018. What follows is an attempt to see a few short years into the future, to understand how current reform proposals may develop.

I have been highly skeptical about the proposals from the Gates Foundation regarding teacher evaluation, because they do not correspond with how I have seen teachers collaborate and grow together. There is the language of feedback and growth, but I am fearful of a dystopian outline I see emerging, driven by Gates’ technocratic vision. The “system” has been described in vague terms - elements of student and parent feedback, teacher observations, videotapes - and a $5 billion price tag. To offer some perspective, assuming there are five million classrooms in America, that amounts to about $1000 per classroom. What is all this money going to buy?

I want to describe the possible future I see, and I want to hear from others. Do you see what I see? Am I wrong to be uneasy or even fearful of this?
Here is the outline I find a bit scary.

The year is 2018. We have a national system of standards, curriculum, technological enhancements and high stakes tests, all aligned and built out (as described by Bill Gates in 2009.) Teachers arrive at school and are handed not just the keys to the classroom, but the whole year’s curriculum, which has been developed by “experts” and “innovators” - meaning textbook publishers and educational software developers. There is an optimum way to deliver each lesson, as has been determined by field testing, and teachers are told to watch a video to ensure they know how it ought to be delivered.

There is a detailed timeline, to make sure that students cover all the material required for each grade level, so they stay on track for college and career. Much of the instruction is done online, in large “flipped” classrooms. “Personalization” is achieved by having each student work autonomously, using educational software, taking periodic assessments to track their progress. Student essays are uploaded to automated scoring systems, which quickly and efficiently return detailed feedback on punctuation and sentence structure, but offer no capacity for understanding what the student has attempted to communicate. Teachers become managers of this interface between students and the standardized curriculum.

There are computer-based benchmark tests aligned with the curriculum every six weeks, to make sure the teacher is covering the material according to the timeline. Then there is an end of year test that covers all the material learned, and this allows the student to receive credit for course completion. The teacher is also given credit for the material the students have learned. Teachers and students have unique ID numbers that are attached to all their records. Both student and teacher data are stored in the inBloom data warehouse, which is made available to school districts, colleges, and companies doing various forms of research and product development.

Each classroom has its own video camera. These cameras are networked and controlled from the school or district office. Teachers are directed to record lessons of particular topics, which are coded according to the standards that are addressed. Then when the test scores arrive, teachers who have students that have performed above expectations on their tests have their videos placed in a “preferred practices” library for reference by teachers and evaluators. Teachers whose students perform consistently below expectations are flagged for more intensive review and feedback, or fired, depending on their status and level of due process protection.

Since principals do not have sufficient time to observe and supervise teachers, this work is contracted out to “experts,"(hired by for-profit service providers) who are sent the videos to review remotely. They provide a summary of what they observe, using as their guideline the checklist of best practices and the instructions for that particular lesson. This is included in the teachers’ evaluation.

Teachers are provided with this feedback, and given the chance to improve - they can review the videos of more effective teachers, and work to deliver their lesson according to the script or best practices guidelines. These key lessons are once again delivered, videotaped, and the teachers are scored on their performance.

Teachers who fail to respond to this feedback, and whose students continue to perform poorly on assessments, are fired. This system uses the following “multiple measures” of data to ensure that it is an accurate representation of a teachers’ effectiveness:

  • Video of the teacher engaged in instruction, scored by experts.
  • student test scores and VAM analyses.
  • student and parent survey data
  • Principal’s observations

The inBloom data system will contain a complete record of each teacher’s performance. If any school district is contemplating hiring a teacher, they will enter the teacher’s code number and access all this information.

This is a future I believe is possible given the systems and structures being promoted by technocrats like Gates. This is NOT the way the system has been described by Bill Gates or any of his representatives. They tend to use the language of feedback and collaboration. But as I have been asking, if collaboration is the goal, why must this be embedded in an evaluation process, which has the goal of determining who ought to be fired?

Teachers are already being evaluated based on the test scores of students they never taught. Every subject is being assigned some form of standardized test, so that student and teacher performance can be quantified and compared. Measurement has already run amok, and the plans we are seeing outlined expand this dramatically. In this climate, I believe more collection of data allows for more inappropriate uses of data, and we are far beyond the place where this data is helping.

If I thought that creating this ultimate system of alignment would result in better lives for students, I would get with the program. However, we know that high stakes tests are far more effective at reinforcing inequities than breaking them down. Students are not standardized, and teachers do their best work when they can teach creatively, building on student interests, and responding to their needs. Conformity and standardization may create efficient marketplaces, but they will drive the vitality from our classrooms.

If I am wrong, and the new evaluation system described by Bill Gates really is all about feedback and collaboration, then why not remove the model from an evaluative framework. Make the sharing of videos voluntary and low-stakes. Provide teachers dedicated time for collaboration. Offer a variety of structures such as Lesson Study, Critical Friends and Teacher Inquiry, that have been proven effective at generating authentic reflection and growth.

If I turn out to be right, then smash those cameras, boycott those tests, opt out of the data systems, and refuse to be standardized and scripted.

What do you think? Am I being alarmist? How do you imagine our future will take shape based on the systems being put into place?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.