A friend writes concerning the problem of employee evaluation in her field, nursing. But I suspect that evaluation is less of a problem for nurses if only because I imagine that in nursing there is more general agreement on what the best practices are. In the school world, there is little such consensus. In fact, the whole question of “best practice” can be highly politicized.
For example, long ago, in a hypothetical school district in a distant galaxy, a new Superintendent hired a new high school Principal and appointed a new Director of Special Education. We had always thought that our special education department was pretty good and that our colleagues there were more-than-competent people. Suddenly, they were all being hammered in their evaluations, being rated incompetent in all categories. What had happened that they suddenly went from being a good department to being bad, from being good teachers to being bad? Mostly, the instructional model, and therefore the evaluation criteria, changed, effective immediately, with the change in management. The existing model that had been in place for many years called for highly individualized instruction. The new model was “Direct Instruction.” Suddenly, everyone was doing essentially the exact opposite of “correct” practice. The implication was that they had been doing everything wrong all along. Some were fired. Some went elsewhere, disgusted. A few outlasted the madness. Nothing had changed except the criteria. Nobody saw it coming. It was purely top-down.
As it turned out, Direct Instruction did not work very well, and after everyone had turned themselves upside down and inside out to embrace it, it sort of went away again.
So what was going on here? I have my own, admittedly cynical, analysis. The Superintendent was brought in by what I call a “True Constituency,” a small but vocal and influential group with strong ties to some of the Board members. These people had philosophical issues with the Principal of the high school and certain of the more outspoken faculty. I am convinced that he was hired, at least in part, to “clean house.”
One way he accomplished this was by “evaluating” the high school. He hired a consultant (and crony) to conduct an “Effectiveness Audit” to show that this school was badly run, with an incompetent Principal. Teachers, and other employees I suppose, tend to be anxious whether a new evaluation system will be honest and fair, or whether it will be contrived to “punish” them. In this case, one example was the consultant’s conflating the per-capita income of a model district that was chosen for comparison with the mean household income of our district. The comparison district was with an affluent suburban district, Oak Park, Illinois, or some such. The demographics were apples and chickens, not really a fair comparison. I did not realize this until later when I got hold of a copy of the report and read it carefully.
One of an administrator’s talking points, when he is interviewing for a new position, is problem solving. That requires identifying a problem that needs solving. The candidate who said, “this is a well-run district with well-run schools; I will be a careful steward and make incremental improvements as needed,” would be “dead on arrival.” He identifies a problem, and then he “solves” it his first year on the job. If there is no problem, something must be made to look like a problem. “Solving” it frequently involves some “house cleaning.” It worked. The Principal went to administrate in a neighboring state. A targeted teacher (a national Teacher of the Year finalist, by the way) left the classroom to write a book.
Furthermore, with a new high school in the works, the new Superintendent had reason to cast the existing school as the “bad” school so that the school that opened on his watch could be the “good” school. We got a new Principal to slap us into line. The result was that new teachers were bullied mercilessly, poor evaluations being one weapon used, and several of our better, more experienced teachers left for less hostile environments.
I am trying to suggest why employees are right to be concerned with how they will be evaluated, by whom, and according to what criteria. Teachers are probably especially concerned about evaluation because of the complexity of the educational enterprise, not only its size and organizational complexity, but its methods, its goals, its constituency, its clientele, and because if its susceptibility to politicization, both from within and from without.
What came of this bad time? For one thing, we started to develop a new model for teacher evaluation. This was as much the union’s initiative as the district’s, and it is negotiated into the master contract each year. The district likes it because it is a framework for teacher accountability. The union likes it because it is a way a teacher can document what he does. The old year-end checklist, although quick and easy, could be very much a ‘tis-‘t ain’t proposition if a teacher didn’t agree with some rating. It was sort of a mash-up of Charlotte Danielson and NSSE best practices. As I wrote my beginning-of-year professional development plan and my year-end summary, these criteria gave me focus. Although I don’t necessarily do day-by-day lesson plans, when a visitation is scheduled, I do a lesson plan and e-mail it to the administrator in advance so he will know exactly what he is seeing. Then there are also unscheduled visitations. This sounds like a lot more work than in the good old days, and it is. But if I am not doing my job, I will have a lot harder time hiding it from the administration. And if I take the process seriously, it will be a lot harder for a clueless or vindictive administrator to blindside me with arbitrary or capricious actions.
I have never taught in one of those really bad schools that I read about all the time, although I recognize that all too many of them exist. Their failures should be a cautionary tale to all of us. And there are brilliantly achieving schools which surely have practices worthy of emulation. Good teacher evaluation can drive real improvement. But if I seem to be suggesting that the union is not the problem, but part of the solution, you read me right. Never mind that the Politicians, Pundits, Polemicists, and all too many Professors Who Know Better would have you believe otherwise. They have their own various agendas which, I have decided, have to do with everything but the actual improvement of the nation’s schools.