Sunday, July 12, 2015

Data does not a great teacher make

And so the data reporting begins. 

The Star Ledger reported yesterday:
For the first time, New Jersey's Department of Education will publish a centralized database with the aggregate teacher evaluation results for each school across the state. 
The 2013-14 data, to be released next week, will not include performance ratings for specific teachers. But parents will be able to see how many teachers in a school received each of the four possible ratings, according to the state....Before 2013-14, teachers were essentially graded on a thumbs up or thumbs down system, based on a century-old law that required evaluations. Nearly 100 percent of teachers were deemed acceptable....More than 97 percent of New Jersey teachers received positive evaluation scores for 2013-14, the state announced in June (Hmmm... 97% isn't that 'nearly 100%'? Just sayin'.) But unlike previous years, the new system creates more distinction between perforance levels and allows the state to further analyze the data for useful trends. 
For example, teachers in their first or second year were twice as likely to receive a "partially effective" review as more expereinced teachers. 
Meanwhile, experienced teachers were twice as likely to get the highest rating. (emphasis mine)
Ah, ya gotta love the irony. Nothing screams, "We need excellent educators in every classroom!" like underfunding public education, piling enormous amounts of data collection and test prep on top of all the mountains of work classroom teachers already have, blaming, shaming, disrespecting, devaluing, under-paying, slashing and burning, VAM-ing and scaming us into thinking all of this is good 'for the children'. No wonder 40-50% of educators leave the profession within the first 5 years.

Education 'reformers' from coast to coast beat the war drums against seniority and bow to the Holy Grail of data, but will they have the guts to face the data that shows that, as in every other profession, experience matters?

Ask any veteran educator and they will tell you that if they could go back and re-do their first 5 years teaching, they would do things much differently. Experience builds competence; practice makes progress. It's a no brainer—except in 'reformy land'. I hope they have 'some fava beans and a nice chianti' on hand to wash down those words they have to eat. You know... the ones that say we're all just a bunch of lazy oafs, waiting to collect our pensions.

Which brings me to this:

Last week I attended the National Education Association Representative Assembly in Orlando. Translation: 10,000 education professionals sitting in a convention center for 8-10 hours a day over 4 days doing Robert's Rules as we chart the organization's course for the next year. 

Shanna Peeples, a teacher from Texas and the 2015 NEA National Teacher of the Year gave this riveting speech:

Here's what resonated for me (all emphasis mine):

On her first year teaching:
The teacher I was lucky enough to teach next door to during my first disastrous year of teaching showed me a lot about being a professional.
On the NEA: 
I've never been more proud of a membership in my whole life....[T]he NEA welcomed black members four years before the Civil War and elected a woman president ten years before women had the right to vote, I thought, this isn’t a group of people who are afraid. These are people who are willing to be brave and fight for those who have been pushed out, left out and singled out.... I see warriors of kindness, warriors of hope, and warriors whose spines are absolute steel in their resolve to fight for what matters. You are the best kind of warriors because your mission is to save and serve the most vulnerable members of our society: children. You are their voice and their champions.
On education 'reform': 
Our critics love clichés, and simplistic slogans and manipulated data—this is how they attack, and the good news is the utter banality of those attacks.
On retaining excellent educators: 
We have to keep our best teachers teaching by giving them real positions of leadership and real responsibility. Part of the most-cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession is the pressure of so much responsibility with so little say in what happens.
On the over use of data: 
In education, we have an almost dysfunctional relationship with data, as if the raw scores and scale scores will arrange themselves into arrows pointing this way or that way. I like the way Dave Zirin talks about data: “ Statistics are like a bikini. They show so much, but they hide the most important parts.” 
And, as we know, the most important parts of our jobs are students. Each data point is a person, which our critics often forget in their zeal to rate and evaluate. And people are notoriously difficult to standardize. But what we as teachers know, is that our lessons have to affect both the head and the heart. They have to involve students in real work for real outcomes.
On teaching refugee students: 
We decided to use their visual literacy to build a bridge to written words. So, we began with drawings. I used a prompt that first day that I’ve used my entire career: “Draw something you’ll never forget.” Mostly, I get drawings about roller coasters and puppies and maybe one or two about when a beloved grandparent passes away. I was totally unprepared for my refugee students drawings. They drew very detailed scenes of small huts on fire, of beatings, of leaving family members behind a razor-wire fence—and most disturbingly, of small children being bayoneted by soldiers. 
Those same students, with help, created digital narratives of their experiences that used images and music to communicate their experience in an authentic way that has engaged every audience who has seen them. 
Now, a standardized test won’t reveal these skills and experiences, but I propose that this story is still data, but more importantly, that me telling this story gives you more insight into them than reams of scores that label them as “below proficient.”
On her own life experience: 
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who knew that monsters must somehow live inside bottles of whiskey because they could turn otherwise good people into someone who grabbed her by the throat and shoved her against the wall until she nearly quit breathing. Or someone who would take a baseball bat to her mother’s face. Or someone that did other, much darker things when no one who wasn’t drinking whiskey was around. 
The monsters sometimes made bargains with her. They taught her how to drive a car when she was 12 years old so she could get her father home from the bar without another DUI charge. Once, she drove across two states with her mother out cold in the back seat and her mother’s boyfriend so drunk in the front seat that she had to drive with one arm holding him off her. She learned to live with her fists clenched, on guard at all times, because she was the oldest and her siblings were too little to take a punch. 
But she had school. And teachers. Teachers who gave her books and paper and pencils and taught her how to write when she wanted to hit, when she wanted to scream, or quit. Teachers showed her that books could take her anywhere and that she could literally write herself new beginnings. That little girl was lucky enough to have teachers who were her warriors. Who helped her to fight off the despair that came with her to school every day like a stray dog. The little girl learned that teachers are the best kinds of heroes because they showed her how to turn fear into faith. Faith in her ability to think, faith in her ability to create her own path, faith to believe in herself. 
That little girl was me and I teach for her and everyone just like her. Every little boy who knows the kind of fear that addiction brings. Every little girl who knows the kind of fear that poverty brings.
There is no data point in the universe that can pinpoint what makes Shanna Peeples not only an excellent teacher, but the best of the best this year. There is no evaluation system or standardized test that can turn every single teacher into a teacher of the year. Just as the overwhelming majority of children will never go on to become President of the United States, there is no way to put a Shanna Peeples in every single classroom in this country. There is only one of her. But there are many, many excellent teachers changing students' lives for the better every single day. And they need to be honored, respected, valued, uplifted, paid, properly trained, supported and treated as the professionals they are. That's how you attract and retain great teachers.