Charlotte built an axe

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(I have gutted this post, taking out details that identified me too easily. The full post will return in March or April. I’m sorry if someone pointed you here and part of what I wrote is missing.)

Was that my summative evaluation? It’s barely February, but the district seems to want lots of time to decide who they will keep and who they will dismiss. I’ll know within a week or two if my evaluator is going to Danielson me. I don’t think it matters much now if Charlotte’s Axe falls on my head. I doubt they’ll push me out the door before the end of the year. I do my job. I teach furiously and with some remnants of passion.

A colleague asked, “Are they trying to get you out?” Good question. The answer most likely is yes. It’s clear they are pushing some teachers out and I might try to get rid of me if I were culling the herd. I make a fair amount of money due to an absurd number of college credits and a number of years in the classroom. More importantly, I have tried to advocate for the maligned whole-group instruction. I continue to contend that when nobody knows the material, then whole-group instruction remains appropriate. Thanks to the many lesson plans steered by outsiders and the Common Core, I frequently find myself teaching material that no student has seen before.

Eduhonesty: Let’s get back to Charlotte Danielson, the well-meaning woman who created the axe. My district is laying off people and determining the order in which people will be called back based on scores from the Danielson rubric. That’s not what Danielson intended. But administrators are threatening teachers throughout my district by telling them that if their average score falls below 2.something-or-another-above-the-middle-anyway (I’m tuning out a fair amount of this craziness now.) they will not be renewed. One of our administrators is considered to be a much tougher grader than the most likely alternative, so people with an unlucky draw in evaluators have been running scared.

(I want to observe that I am in no way against teacher evaluations. Like standardized tests, teacher evaluations fulfill a necessary purpose. The devil is in the details. A colleague recently told me gleefully that he had been lucky. In three years, he had never gotten evaluated by the Evaluator that Everyone Fears. That’s luck. A lot of people have not gotten lucky. Danielson’s rubric contains 4 domains, 22 components, and 76 elements. In one class period, no one can observe all of that and a regrettable number of evaluators will likely infer or even make up numbers to fill out the requirements. I’ve been in professional development meetings where we all tried to decide if a teaching video merited a 2, 3 or 4 on Danielson’s rubric. Mostly, people varied by one number, but one woman’s two can sometimes be another woman’s four. A tough evaluator who gives all 2s and 3s will end up with a very different final average than a less tough evaluator who gives mostly 3s and 4s. No evaluation should depend so heavily on luck of the evaluator but when that many numbers are in play, pure mathematics ensures that the effect of the tough evaluator will be magnified.)

Charlotte’s axe is not merely an instrument used to lop off the heads of teachers who don’t cooperate with current theory. While that axe is decapitating a fair number of educators across the country, one other Danielson effect needs to receive a great deal more attention. As I go through all the paperwork for my Professional Development for the year, days and days of development if you add up the meetings, I find that, with one single, subject-area-related exception, all but a few hours of my development have been about either Charlotte’s axe or new, improved disciplinary measures. Since last year, my district has aggressively taught the many components of the Danielson Rubric, helping teachers learn how to succeed under this rubric. That helpfulness is appreciated, but the time… Oh, the time! We are spending meeting after meeting on the Danielson Rubric to the exclusion of almost everything else, with a little discipline thrown in on the side. And no wonder. I have a copy of The Framework for Teaching: Evaluation Instrument, the 2013 edition of Charlotte Danielson’s explanation of her rubric. The book is 109 pages long.

It’s as if Charlotte has sucked up our professional development time, replacing it with endless explanations of how her rubric works. Over and over, we learn the components of our new teacher evaluation system. What corporation would use almost all their available training time to teach employees the company’s evaluation system? At this point, I wish I had been tracking the specific minutes of those meetings so I could present hard data. I’m afraid my data’s soft, but all I can say is this: I get it! Now, please can we talk about something else? Given a choice, I think I’d prefer an in-depth investigation of the U.S. Post Office’s finances or a presentation on cholera vectors in developing nations. Actually, I’d far prefer to hear about cholera.

We are a school with new teachers, a number of them first-year teachers. Yet, ironically, in this time of differentiation, we seem to be doing almost nothing except teaching these new teachers the Danielson Rubric in whole-group meetings. I’d like to note that my district might benefit from practicing what Danielson and school administrators advocate — doing small-group work based on individual needs. I’m sure our new teachers would benefit from separate sessions tailored to their classroom management needs. I’m also sure that some of us have grasped the details of Danielson’s rubric and are ready to move on.

Charlotte built an axe. I don’t intend to stick around much longer to observe its effects, but I think I’ll share one last no-doubt-unintended consequence. I have been advising colleagues to move out of academically disadvantaged areas into more prosperous, higher-scoring districts. When a large portion of anyone’s evaluation is based on individual student behavior and class test scores, the smart move is to go where the behavior is the best and the test scores are the highest. Period.

That’s probably what I would do now — if I did not plan to retire.