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?


Attorney DC said...

Corey: Interesting analogy. With regard to your closing point, I tend to agree that teachers take their evaluations/performance to heart more than other workers. Part of this may be that teachers often go into their jobs as a vocation, rather than a paycheck.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Re: your third example. You make the assumption that the teacher-evaluation checklists are, in fact, identifying the right "behaviors"--and the problem is merely over-anxious teachers.

The reason great, committed teachers are scared out of their minds is because evaluation tools have become so prescriptive and based on easily observed and measured items. There are dreadful teachers who have figured out the evaluation scoring game, and dedicated folks like your friend who are concerned about their ability to standardize their practice to conform with the correct behaviors and "outcomes" (read: achievement data).

Teaching is complex intellectual work and cannot easily be evaluated using a behavioral checklist. In fact, mediocre teachers thrive when these tools are used, because knowing what to do becomes simple.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I certainly didn't make that assumption while I was writing, so I'm sorry it sounded like that. What I was trying to say was:

1.) the motivation behind the initiative was good, even if the implementation wasn't

2.) regardless of the quality of the initiative, I'm worried that it seems to be stressing out the *best* teachers, when it would make a lot more sense to stress out the *worst*

Melissa Rankin said...

To some extent this is based on the nature of the beast. The fourth grade you, the A student, and your teacher friend all want to please others, suffer from a certain measure of self-doubt, and all are probably internally motivated to achieve. I've never figured out how to create internal motivation in others, but I agree that Teacher Quality Initiatives may not accomplish that any better than carrots and sticks.

Often high achievers are the worst at worrying about being good enough and the best at wanting to please others. For example, Allie has worried herself sick for months over whether or not she would be able to get into PT school, often convinced she wasn't good enough. Yesterday she not only got accepted by her first choice school, her application was so strong she doesn't even have to go through the interview process.

Good teachers generally want to be good teachers. Poor teachers, like poor students, often blame the system, the environment, the evaluator, . . . anything outside of themselves for their poor performance. I like carrots, but I know plenty of teachers who really don't care one way or another about them.

Angela Watson said...

This is a great perspective. A comment on your comment:

"I'm worried that it seems to be stressing out the *best* teachers, when it would make a lot more sense to stress out the *worst*."

It seems to me that the "worst" teachers often have a don't-care attitude precisely because they're stressed out. They're frustrated with student discipline, paperwork, etc. and decide the easiest thing to do is stop caring and just try to get by. At some point in the beginning of the year, most of them cared quite a bit. They've lost that enthusiasm and need help tapping back into it.

Just about every teacher I know at every level of effectiveness is stressed. I'd like to see measures that *inspire* teachers to improve rather than bully and scare them into it. When we have students who aren't meeting their potential, we try to create buy-in and provide every possible measure of support to make sure they're successful. Imagine how different things would be if school reformers took the same approach with teachers.

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