Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rather Than a Single Formula, a Single Process

I have criticized the various recent proposals floating around the country for new teacher appraisal systems on many grounds, including being instances of the fallacy of composition, which in this case means the notion that a complex activity like teaching, in its many different permutations in different subjects and grade levels, can be reduced to a single formula, to be applied uniformly across entire states. Reasonable friends might ask, "Okay, if you oppose these fomulas, what would you do? Surely you don't want to leave the status quo in place?"

Indeed I don't. What I propose is a single process oriented towards improvement for all teachers, rather than any single formula for judging their putative merit. Such a process would have all teachers meet with their immediate supervisors (ideally this would be a teaching inspector, but I'll save that idea for another post) near the start of the school year, say around October, to set targets related to aspects of their job description and to establish personalized professional development plans to help each teacher reach those individually chosen targets. A cycle of coaching sessions and follow-up meetings would continue during the year, with these oriented towards helping each teacher get better. Near the end of the year (somewhere between April and June), a summative appraisal meeting between the teacher, the immediate supervisor, and the administrator the next level up would write out the annual formal performance review, with the teacher's own written self-assessment discussed before management produces its formal appraisal, with its paragraphs detailing the supervisor's reasoning and with the teacher's performance crystallized in a number representing a holistic assessment of that performance while also utilizing the same scale that the school uses to assess its students and managers.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Teacher Appraisals Should Not Directly Include Student Test Scores

I can immediately think of four reasons why student test scores should not be counted as any direct percentage of a teacher's performance appraisal: (1) it is inherently unjust to judge person A on the basis of person B's performance; (2) any such formula is by definition an instance of the fallacy of composition; (3) it will destroy teacher morale, and therefore end up costing taxpayers more at a time when we haven't money to pay for those increases; and (4), worst of all, the backwash effect of any increased emphasis on testing will continue to degrade the educations our students are receiving.

(1) I am completely willing to be judged on my performance, but given my experience at Locke High School, where I heard of students making funny face designs out of their Scantron answer sheets on tests which held no stakes for them, I believe the potential for abuse is too great to make important decisions about people's employment and careers on such a flimsy basis.

(2) The most valuable class I had in college was Philosophy 9, Practical Logic, at UCLA. One lecture dealt with logical fallacies, and one of those included was the fallacy of composition, which assumes that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. It isn't; the arrangement of the parts matters as well, and it is often difficult to completely identify all of the parts in any complex activity, of which teaching is one. Imagine Mrs. Lincoln being asked to give her review of Our American Cousin: we can imagine her dutifully filling out a form about the play's plot, acting, direction, and so on; there would not likely be a category about one's date's safety included on the form, but the Ford Theatre's lack of security had a decisive influence on her experience of the play ("Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"). Similarly, there are far more aspects to successful teaching than are being discussed in any of the reductive formulas being passed around, and the last thing we need is a formula-based simplification of the teaching profession akin to the simplified reductions in curricular learning we have seen as a result of the formula-based assessments that proliferated after No Child Left Behind.

(3) I have read that, wherever such formulas have been tried around the world, they have been intensely disliked, and it's hard to see why we should now expect an exception. Teachers' morale is already at a historical low, as recorded on surveys going back to the 1980s, and as we drive young people away from entering such a badly appreciated career, the only way to attract and retain people in a job whose intrinsic satisfactions have so badly declined will be by compensating teachers with higher salaries, and our states and taxpayers do not have big pots of money lying around waiting to be drawn upon to pay those higher wages.

(4) I used to teach Advanced Placement English as well as classes preparing those students who had already failed California's High School Exit Examination multiple times so as to help them pass that test, so I am well acquainted with teaching to high stakes tests; but many subjects (art, music, vocational, and others) are not oriented towards such tests, nor should they be; and we have entirely too much testing going on already, particularly in our increasingly miserable primary schools. A predictable consequence of this appraisal proposal will be having teachers whose job security and salaries are dependent on their students' scores not put students first and do what is best for them, but instead put themselves first by turning their classrooms into appalling test prep factories. I have already noticed a change in my younger son's school, from which he graduated this week and from which his older brother graduated eight years earlier. The older teachers in my older son's school knew how to teach interesting lessons and units that did not end in some sort of standardized test, and so the best part of the school year was after such tests were finished, in May. By contrast, the younger teachers and new leaders in my younger son's school seem to have no idea what to do once the testing is finished; the last five weeks of the school year are a round of parties and games and are devoid of learning, a complete ripoff of the taxpayers, and this apparently has met with administrative approval.

I know some will think I am switching sides here, but I believe reform has gone badly off the rails in the last few years, and I urge the teachers in Los Angeles and similar communities to reject this bad idea being promoted by well intentioned people.