A sobering thought on the new evaluation system

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The state of Illinois requires that all schools use the Charlotte Danielson rubric for teacher evaluation. That’s what administrators have told me anyway. Other states and districts are using this rubric as well. Without going into tedious detail, I want to note one problem with the rubric. The rubric is set up so that an evaluator must fill in pages of information, the good, the bad, and the hopefully little or no ugly. But if you create a box for things that need to be fixed, people will find something that needs to be fixed, especially since these evaluators are often watching more than 30 kids. If you stick a nail up in the (d)evaluation instrument, administrators will naturally grab for hammers. Since any student’s off-task or otherwise unfortunate behavior is a nail to be pounded down, the boxes will always have little dings: “Three students in back did not finish the work before the teacher went on to the next activity,” for example, or “two girls on the side were talking while the teacher demonstrated plotting points,” or “the teacher used few critical thinking questions.” (How many critical thinking questions are there about plotting points? Actually, there are a number, but how many should be stuck into one lesson about plotting points?)

The problem is not with the criticisms per se. We should all be trying to improve as instructors. The problem is that the structure of this rubric almost mandates that a fair number of suggestions for improvement are included along with observations of what went right in the lesson — whether the lesson overall went well, not-so-well, or badly. Given that some administrators will include as many suggestions for improvement as they can in order to document that they are doing their job of improving instructor performance, the final Danielson rubric may be filled with myriad tiny, little criticisms, even if the net product is a “favorable” review.

Eduhonesty: Teachers receive few pats on the back during the school year. Especially in poor and urban schools, principals are too busy to just wander into classrooms. Sometimes, contracts prevent this random entrance into classrooms. Teachers work alone. In a given year, teachers may get more praise for teaching from clerks at Target as they buy yet another set of markers and art supplies than they do from their school administration. Historically, the teacher reviews were the time when the pats-on-the-back came through. “Great job, Ms. Jones. I like the way you presented the genes and those marshmallows with the little eyeballs really got the idea across. I can tell your students know their … (fill in topic here.)”

Now those compliments are diluted. “Great job, Ms. Jones. I like the way you presented the genes and those marshmallows with the little eyeballs really got the idea across. Did you notice that two students at the back ate their marshmallows though? One of them put glue on his partner, too. You may need to create a system to manage the marshmallows better. If you could find eyeballs that had peel-off backs, that might solve your glue problem.” (And cost you another three dollars, since the only supply the school offers is glue. In a poor district, the school probably will not buy your eyeballs or marshmallows — even if you had time to wait for a purchase order to make it through channels.)

The administrator continues: “I think you might need another color of eyeball too in order to make this activity authentic. What about blue eyes? Overall, the activity did seem to cover the material well, though, and I can tell your students understand the main idea of the lesson. However, you only used a couple of critical thinking questions. Just having them identify how the genes behave is not enough. With the Common Core coming, we need to make certain that our students regularly respond to challenging, critical thinking questions. For example, you might ask “What are you attempting to accomplish with your marshmallows? What data and what experiences contribute to understanding how you put together your marshmallows? What evidence can you supply to prove that your marshmallow creature follows the laws of genetics in the chapter?” Etc. Etc. Etc.

In the end, that last review may be perfectly positive when the rubric is numbered and scored. Administration may even consider the final result a good review showing that the teacher is at least proficient. There’s a real chance, though, that the teacher feels like crap. As he or she reads her review, there appear to be so many things that could or should have been better, so many opportunities missed. He or she also may feel a tremendous sense of injustice since teachers are now being held responsible for the behavior of all their students. If Zeke could not stay awake because he played video games all night for the third night in a row, a remark like, “teacher failed to wake up student in the front row,” especially if said teacher tried four or five times to wake Zeke up, inspires a sense of anger or even rage. Short of throwing a bucket of ice water on Zeke, most likely nothing but a fire drill could have kept that boy’s head up.

What the teacher lost under the new review system was that “Well done!” that used to come at least a few times a year. “Very good lesson” is NOT the same thing as “Very good lesson except for this, that and these other things.” The difference can be huge, as well as extremely demoralizing. So many teachers work nights, week-ends and vacations. An uncluttered, uncomplicated, “Great job!” with a few targeted suggestions for future improvement helps justify all of this mostly unrecognized labor. Sometimes now, that “Great job!” may never be heard, lost in the flotsam of all the negatives the rubric is designed to document in order to “improve” instruction.

I am 100% in favor of efforts to improve instruction. But writing down every teeny sub-optimal detail helps no one. “You need to pick up the pace on your opener” is a valid criticism, as is “Teacher did not seek student input on the effect of volcanoes.” There are many valid criticisms that correctly fit in a review. But when we start brainstorming critical thinking questions about marshmallow deployment, we have gone too far. The new Danielson rubric results in a plethora of tiny nails pounded into a review that become nitpicking at its worst. Especially in the case of new teachers, I could see where a few of these reviews would result in a person saying, “I obviously can’t seem to teach, so I guess I’ll go back to school.” Or accounting. Or any other job where the-now-former-teacher might expect to feel less like a failure.