Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do Teacher Quality Initiatives Impact the Wrong Teachers?

Let me illustrate my point by first telling three anecdotes.

1.) Believe it or not, back in elementary school I was just about the model student.  I was quiet and respectful in class, did all my homework on time, scored high on tests, wrote good reports, and won numerous awards.  When teachers fretted about the performance of their students, I don't think my name came up too often.

Which is why my first day of fourth grade sticks out.  I'd been assigned to a teacher new to our school, and I didn't know what to expect.  I hoped she'd be nice and was a little worried when she took the opportunity to sternly lay down the law and do her best to discourage any disobedience.  As my Mom tells it, I came home in tears that day, sobbing "She's sooo strict!"

2.) A couple weeks ago, I was the teacher fretting about my class.  As I prepared interim grade reports, it was even more evident to me that a number of students weren't putting forth the effort I was hoping they would (and had become accustomed to seeing from students in my class).  As I puzzled over this, part of me wanted to read my class the riot act.  I settled for hoping that the sub-par grade reports and a few words of motivation would kick them into gear.

A day later, I got a tentative knock on my office door.  A student was worried about the report.  I looked at the student's grades for the semester and quickly ascertained that there was no need for concern here.  We spoke for a while and I assured the student that earning the highest quiz grades in the class indicated a strong likelihood that the end-of-term grade would be pretty high if present efforts were maintained.

3.) A good friend of mine is a model teacher.  You know that teacher that arrives at school before dawn, gives up lunches, nights, weekends, and breaks to tutor students, chaperon dances, re-make that lesson plan for the 20th time, and do whatever else is necessary (and, usually, unnecessary)?  That's my friend.  Were I the principal, I'd promptly resign and insist my friend take the job.

A couple years back, the school district where my friend teaches implemented a new teacher evaluation program involving lots of new checklists and observations and other bells and whistles.  Ever since, my friend has been an absolute wreck.  Every conversation inevitably, and repeatedly, turns to the strong likelihood that my friend will no longer be employed in the near future.  I assure my friend that the new system is designed to ensure the district keeps the model teachers and that the worrying is unnecessary, but to no avail.  I don't know if the constant anxiety has negatively impacted my friend's teaching or not, but it's certainly impacting quality of life.

so, what do these three have in common?

In the first, the teacher (rightfully) wanted to scare the worst students straight and push the mediocre ones to do better.  But it was the best student (I'd like to think) who was mortified, not the worst ones.  Many years later, I found out my Mom had relayed my reaction to the teacher, who had sighed, shaken her head, and said something like "it's always the wrong ones who get scared."

In the second, I (rightfully, I sure hope) wanted to scare the worst students straight and push the mediocre ones to do better.  But the only reaction I got was from possibly the best student in the class -- the one who doesn't need to spend any time fretting about what the end of term report card will say.

In the third, the district (rightfully, I think) wanted to scare the worst teachers straight (and/or just fire them) and push the mediocre ones to do better.  I can't say how the other teachers responded, but the model teacher I know is the one who's been scared, despite being straight as an arrow to begin with.

what does this mean?

Is it possible that our attempts to scare teachers straight are only scaring the ones who were already doing things the right way?  After all, the ones who care the most about their performance are the ones who are most likely to take the new initiatives to heart.

Whether one threatens to fire teachers, rolls out a new evaluation system, publishes value-added scores, implements a new incentive pay system, or whatever else, I wonder who will be most responsive?  It seems likely that it's those who were already the most responsible.

so what?

If we can expect those who care the most to react the strongest to accountability and evaluation initiatives, then we need to change the way we frame and present these initiatives.  We can't just assume that a few threats will scare the stiffs straight when the stiffs aren't even paying attention.  And we don't certainly don't want to scare off the best and the brightest.

I'd argue, we need to take a more nuanced and targeted approach when pursuing these types of efforts.  Let's first make sure that those who are doing the right thing are recognized and thanked for their efforts.  Those who aren't recognized and thanked, and don't seem interested in being recognized and thanked, may be the ones we need to threaten, encourage, or hold accountable.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who manages organizational change in another field.  I relayed the story of my friend the model teacher and the subsequent anxiety.  My non-teacher friend quickly dismissed the anecdote, noting that all organizational change elicits fear and anxiety among employees.  It seems to me that teachers might be more anxious than others, but I'm inclined to agree with that point: all organizational change probably does elicit fear and anxiety among employees.  But is it the right employees who are scared and anxious?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When Outsiders are Needed

I've written about the push to include more outsiders in education (here and here, for example), and often focused more on the negatives than the positives of doing so.  So, today, let me take a brief moment to highlight one of the negatives of not allowing outside perspectives into education.

As regular readers know, I used to teach at a middle school in the Bronx that was shut down a few years back.  While shuttering the school (and subsequently opening three new, smaller, schools inside the building) was certainly no panacea, it's hard for me to believe it could possibly have made the situation any worse.

Not everything at my school was a disaster (the most notable exception to me was that a good portion of the teachers were at least very devoted if not also very skilled), but the list of negatives far exceeds the list of positives.  "Dysfunctional" would be a fair (maybe even kind) assessment of the day-to-day operations of the school.

That's the background for this snippet of conversation between two veteran teachers from a few weeks ago:

Teacher 1: "The more i visit schools, the more I see we were doing this right. [Our school] should have never closed."
Teacher 2: "You are so right [Teacher 1]. I still get angry about it...like it was our fault!"

I'm not a psychologist, but it seems pretty clear to me that the two teachers are (still) unable to dispassionately evaluate our school.  This would align with the split in reactions to the announcement the school would close that I witnessed: the newer teachers in the building (myself included) mostly seemed to say things like "good riddance . . . I'll find a better position somewhere else," while the vets struggled with the decision and where to go next (and were suddenly filled with nostalgia for a school they'd ostensibly detested the week prior).  They obviously had a much deeper connection to the school than did us newbies, but they also seemed to interpret evaluations of the school as implicit evaluations of their own personal performance.

I'm sure there are a million good reasons for them to feel this way, but the policy-relevant point is that those feelings prevented them from seeing all sides of the situation.  If any attack on the school becomes a personal attack against them, it seems unlikely that they'd ever be able to embrace radical change in a school that clearly (to me, anyway) needed just that.

So, in this case, I'd argue that outsiders were needed to do that.  I left before the new schools were up and running, so I have no idea if the outsiders' solution really helped, but I think the recognition that the school wasn't working was a valuable contribution regardless.

In short: while outsiders frequently intrude where they're not needed, this was an instance where they were.

I'm back

Not that I ever officially left, but between dissertation, teaching, revising manuscripts, job hunting, etc. blogging kept falling to the bottom of my to-do list.  I don't expect that to-do list to grow much shorter in the next six months, but I've also noticed how much more engaged I am in ed. policy issues outside of my research-focus when I'm blogging regularly.  So I'm going to blog regularly.  Not every day.  And usually shorter pieces than I've written in the past.  But I'm back.