Monday, June 30, 2014

The Year of Living Danielson


Education professionals across New Jersey just finished their first year under the new evaluation system that was part of the landmark bipartisan TeachNJ law signed by Gov. Christie in 2012. My school district uses the Danielson rubric developed by Charlotte Danielson. It evaluates everything from the way educators greet their students at the door to how well students can actually teach themselves. When I first saw the training videos, my first reaction was that I could be 'highly effective' if I worked in China where total student compliance and obedience is expected. Although I ended the year as 'highly effective' (and no, my students weren't totally compliant and obedient) I still have many doubts. Any evaluation system that outright tells its subjects to 'live in 3 and vacation in 4' (on a scale of 1-4) is demoralizing and contrary to the basic philosophy of learning in the US: shoot for the stars because anything is possible. Educators would never tell their students to do that, so why should we be expected to perform that way? I don't think Ms. Danielson had any intention of her framework being used as part of the high stakes evaluation system we now have where educators can be fired based on student test scores. In this interview she points out the fatal flaw with evaluating teachers in such a manner.


Let’s say I teach 4th grade and my students’ scores on pre-post assessments in reading have increased a lot. I’m happy, my principal’s happy, and the parents are happy.
But it’s hard to know that I was the one who actually caused that gain. It could well be there’s a reading specialist in the building. Or it might be last year’s teacher had some great strategies and students are still using them. 
It might not have much to do with me. So until somebody has figured that out, we’d better not be making high-stakes decisions about teachers’ performance. (emphasis mine)
There also are psychometric and measurement challenges that one confronts when addressing teacher practices. They have mostly to do with the training of evaluators. 
The good news is we now know how to do that, as a result of our research. That’s not the case with the measures of student learning. 

Who you gonna call? Myth Busters!

Contrary to popular belief, educators here in the Garden State have always been evaluated, with non-tenureds receiving more than tenureds, and everyone receiving a year-end review. We have to write professional development goals at the beginning of each year, and there are consequences if we fail to meet those goals. Our lesson plans and student performance have always been subject to administrator scrutiny. But politicians and the billionaires who support them (and who own many media outlets) have controlled the message for the better part of the last decade. They've sold the general public a bunch of hokum about our profession, our students and our schools, and have managed to get many laws passed based on that hokum. But the rank and file educator doesn't have access to news media the way they do, so we've been playing catch up over the past few years to get our message out. but rest assured, it's getting out.


Stop the [testing] world, I want to get off

In the short life of this blog I've enjoyed the exchange of ideas that comes from it. I want it to be as much about your stories as mine. To that end, I've decided to share stories of educators' experiences with the new evaluation system this year. To a person, every education professional I had contact with this year was stressed beyond belief. The added workload was insane (on top of an already insane workload), the hours and hours of mindless data collection, filling out forms, graphs and charts, attending meetings to boost test scores, all took away from the actual art of teaching and the joy of learning. More and more veteran educators told me they are calling it quits rather than subject themselves and their students to any more of this (excuse my language) bullshit.

Students felt it, too. They are now tested in every subject in one way, shape or form. Personally, I administered my very first—and my very last—pencil and paper test. I refuse to subject my students to a test I know they will—and are supposed to—fail. I will find another way because as doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to 'first do no harm', I too must do no harm to my students.

So, here is the first in what I hope will be a series of educators' reflections on their 'Year of Living [Danielson]' (or Strong or Marzano or whatever framework they use). If you'd like to share your story, let me know in the comments section below and we'll connect.

The Circle of [Education] Life

So I received my end-of-year summative evaluation today. I did all right. We use Danielson, and I'll share that on a scale of 1-4, with anything above 3.5 considered "Highly Effective," my number sets me as solidly effective. I'm grateful, really, but a couple of things occurred to me. 

By setting bands of "teacher effectiveness," we are paving the way for merit pay for educators. I have no issue with people who are better than me making more money than I do; I have serious issues with the process we're forced to use to prove value.

I spent many years in high-level corporate sales positions. I knew that my compensation was directly tied to my ability to close. I accepted the position and compensation package, and frankly, I did well. When I got back into teaching, I accepted the cut in pay and the value of seniority/experience. I set out to better my skills, learned a new generation of music and tech, earned my masters and managed to get my kids to learn. 

I guess what I'm rambling to is: teaching is not selling; teaching and learning are intimate human experiences. To see that intimacy reduced to a number with a decimal point feels somehow, cheap. Let's not even discuss whether or not the person(s) doing the evaluation understand the subject well enough to make an accurate judgment. 

To then take that number and base compensation upon it is, simply put, ludicrous. Not only does it totally depersonalize the intimate, it serves to dehumanize both teachers and students. Moreover, how does a district budget for varying degrees of compensation? If a finite amount of money determines how many teachers will receive merit-based raises, the process is skewed from inception.

I know many of my colleagues are extremely discouraged and disheartened. In New Jersey at least, there's a bill in the state legislature looking to delay some of the implications of this new 'reform.' Even Bill Gates, one of the major architects of the new "school of education," has said through his foundation to hold off on evaluating teachers using a methodology cast off by MicroSoft. 
Don’t get me wrong – I believe in continuous improvement. As a musician my daily goal is to be better than I was yesterday. Teaching is an art, and I try to apply my goal there as well. The problem with these systems is that they fail to account for basic human differences.

I am a good teacher. I am able to reach most of my kids, but I am a very different kind of teacher than my colleague in the next room who is able to reach most of her kids. If we were able to switch out the kids we couldn’t reach, we might just get them all. Unfortunately, logistics preclude that kind of approach so we have to just keep trying with the kids we have. The packaged evaluation systems just don’t account for organic ingredients in the classroom. What is the personality mix of the students, and how does the teacher’s personality mesh?

Further, even though my colleague and I are both good, our personalities and approaches are very different. We have discussed several times that it would be difficult to adopt each other’s approach to the work, just because of who we are individually.

When we were exposed to the Danielson model (we also studied Marzano), it seemed like the things we were being presented would indeed help improve our practice of teaching. Those who had not been paying attention to the world of education “reform” over the past few years, and those who had never worked in Corporate America, did not see the potential ramifications of putting teachers into bands of effectiveness level.

Now that a percentage of our evaluation is based on students test results and/or arbitrary measures of student “growth,” they are beginning to understand. It’s my prediction that, unless something changes, contract negotiations throughout the state will include provision for levels of effectiveness influencing at least a portion of teacher compensation. That would be fine if the systems were accurate and objective. As long as there are subjective humans in the mix, often with their own personal agendas, there is and will be no objective measure of teacher effectiveness. Teacher compensation in this model will result in principals playing “favorites,” even if doing so unintentionally.

I honestly believe that things will turn around in education. People are resisting all over the country and across the political spectrum. However, there will be an awful lot of heartache (there already has been since the decimation of public education in 2011) before the ship rights. It will. Those who think they can profit from our children's future will have to offer a product so inferior that customers won't accept it. They will clamor for a novel concept - public education.

I just hate the wasted time and energy. 


Mike Kaufman is “about to start my last year as a public school music teacher in New Jersey.” An instrumental music teacher in Pennsauken, Mike graduated with a degree in Music Education from Montclair State (then) College in 1977. He has taught in districts throughout the state, and outside of school settings has taught people of literally every age. His teaching career was interrupted by a 15-year hiatus into corporate sales and marketing positions, particularly in the high tech sector.