Thursday, April 1, 2010

Fighting the Silver Bullet Approach: An Open Letter to Newsweek

Dear Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert,

When I picked up the March 15 edition of Newsweek to read about "Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers," I was excited to see that its focus was education.  I was disappointed to discover that it did little more than promote the ill-informed, misguided, and destructive contemporary mindset concerning quick fixes to a system that, as you point out yourselves, is enormously diverse in terms of both the communities it serves and the instructional quality it provides.

As someone who’s just beginning my career in education, I’m concerned when I read articles like "Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers" in national periodicals with large readerships.  They have a lot of power to influence our democracy and the decisions we make about educating our children.  And in this case, I find many of the proposed solutions to be off the mark, which should be no surprise when one considers who’s been advocating the ideas you promote.  Over and over again we hear the arguments your article put forth made by people with little to no teaching experience.  They’re most often supplied by education journalists (like you, Ms. Wingert, or Jay Matthews of the Washington Post), educational leaders who are in the business of convincing the public that they’ve found the silver bullet solution to fixing all of education’s problems so that they may keep their positions (like DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who taught for a brief period with TFA, or US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who never taught at all), or people who have a vested interest in seeing youthful educators teach as a form of AmeriCorps-type service (like TFA founder Wendy Kopp, who, as a young Princeton student, decided she could improve education by training a core of youthful idealists in doing something that she knew nothing about herself: teaching).  I have no doubt that most of these people mean well.  On the surface, without the experience and context of being a teacher, many of these arguments seem reasonable and extraordinarily palatable to lawmakers and the American public.  However, the experience of actually working in the urban classroom and all of the nuances that go along with it have led me to believe that the underlying premise of your article is largely off-base and should be reconsidered.  I’d like to use the remainder of this letter to flesh those disagreements out, and I hope that you’ll seriously consider my experience, and the experiences of thousands of educators like me, before you go on to print arguments similar to the ones you put forth in your most recent article.

There is little evidence that American schools have been declining since some mythical heyday of American education.

In your opening paragraph you contend that there has been a decline in American education in comparison to other nations.  I’m not sure where you gathered this information from, but, as far as I know, the only way we’ve been able to compare ourselves to other countries has been through two tests, the PISA and the TIMSS, neither of which were administered prior to 1995.  And in every round of tests, the performance of the US in comparison to the rest of the world has been extraordinarily mediocre.  Please tell me where you found evidence to suggest that “once upon a time” US students tested better than any other students in the world.

I realize that you need to provide a foundation for your article; you need readers on board with your premise that US schools are bad if you’re going to lead them to your conclusions. But there are better ways to build this foundation. 

As you point out yourselves, one of the many hypotheses for our continued international mediocrity is the extraordinary inequity in terms of access to quality education in the US.  Nobody would argue that we provide a stellar education to ALL students.  Reference the traditional funding gap between rich and poor districts; the common policy of allowing property taxes to account for the majority of money that goes into public schools; the 1973 US Supreme Court Case, San Antonio School District v. Rodriquez, which declared that the US Constitution does not protect against class discrimination; that it’s the American way to allow poor kids to receive fewer resources in their public schools in the same school district than rich kids.  Any one of those pieces of evidence in your opening lines, and I would have been hooked.  You would have had me convinced that schools in the US need improvement, and I’d be ready to move on and listen to your arguments.  Harkening back to a heyday of American education and suggesting that our schools are now only roughly comparable to Lithuania (which, I think most statisticians would tell you, is at least a misuse of the available data) was unnecessary.

There are no silver bullets.

A disturbing trend in education journalism has been the emphasis on quick fixes.  As you point out by referencing New Math and open classrooms, the education system goes through a series of quick-fix ideas decade after decade.  One thing my mentors told me during my first year teaching every time I stressed out about trying to master some new strategy was, “Don’t worry about it.  If you just wait a little while, they'll stop talking about it.” They were right.  The focus on those strategies generally just disappeared.  I sense the same short-term, quick-fix push with arguments for charter schools like KIPP, Teach For America, and firing bad teachers.  Your argument seems to be: If we only hired the top ten percent of college graduates to work in schools like KIPP for a few years and got rid of the older, more jaded teachers, American education would improve drastically. 

Three problems:

1)      Requiring teachers to tutor students every day late into the evening, to give out their phone numbers so that can be reached at home, and to come in on the weekend to work with students means asking them to work 70-90 hours a week for somewhere around 38k.  You’re not a teacher at that point; you’re a candidate for martyrdom.  I know; I’ve been there.  You harass yourself for not doing enough for the kids to the point where you develop a sense of enormous guilt when you realize you’re not making the impact you’d hoped and begin to think you could be more successful in a different career.  And it’s not just teachers at places like KIPP that invest such hours.  Teachers all across the country, especially in the early years of their careers, invest enormous amounts of time trying to figure out what this profession is all about. Many find it unsustainable for more than a few years, especially when these young people decide that they want to have a social life and a family.  You even made this point in your article, but then went on merely to say that it’s like being in the Special Forces, only for a select few.

So your solution to our problems in American education is to create a Special Forces branch of our teacher core and pay them poorly?  You don’t think that we should hire more teachers and support personnel to make education in disadvantaged environments more sustainable? You don’t think we should pay teachers more for their sacrifice in order to provide a greater incentive for top graduates to go into and stay in the teaching profession?  You don’t think that putting more resources into community programs in our inner-cities to lower teenage pregnancy, educating parents on how to raise their children, providing drug counselors for struggling families, and enacting reform in housing development and job creation would go a long way to closing the achievement gap?  My point here is that you, like the rest of our quick-fix advocates, are looking for cosmetic adjustments and refusing to acknowledge the root causes of so much of our students’ academic failures.  It’s so much more palatable your way.  Let’s not do the hard, hard work that may or may not lead to immediate jumps in test scores; let’s go for the relatively cheap solutions that may or may not lead to immediate jumps in test scores (with a better chance that they will since their advocates are in positions to mess with the numbers).

2)      A teacher’s experience should be valued.  The prevailing sentiment, implied by your article, seems to downplay experience in favor of enthusiasm.  Both are important, but let me be clear: teaching is hard, and it’s a true profession that requires hours of study and practice to become good at – i.e. years of experience under the belt of an inspired teacher who has a passion for students is an invaluable thing.  It’s what makes the biggest difference in a teacher’s effectiveness.  If we reorganize our education system so that we’re working with a model that runs young, inexperienced and enthusiastic teachers through a system that doesn’t value experience or expertise (as your article seems to promote), we will lose that experience.  Your article lends credence to a movement that would deprofessionalize a career that desperately needs more respect, not less.

3)      Charter schools have had mixed results.  There are plenty of arguments against them and plenty of arguments for them.  A good school is a good school, regardless of whether it’s a charter school or a traditional public school, and there are plenty of each. 

The arguments you put forth, those in favor of silver bullet solutions, are the arguments we hear from Wendy Kopp (makes sense since the more TFAers there are, the more successful she looks), Michelle Rhee, Jay Matthews, and Arne Duncan.  This is disturbing.  None of these people work with our nation’s children face-to-face on a daily basis, nor do they have to deal with the effects of such policies.

The reality is that there are no quick fixes and no silver bullets.  Providing a quality education (especially in our most challenged environments) is hard, unrelenting work that will sometimes provide immediate results (like higher test scores or graduation rates) and sometimes will not.  Unfortunately we live in a society that demands immediate gratification, and in the arena of education, that means higher test scores.  But in a challenged community like Central Falls, RI, you don’t achieve long-term higher achievement in just a few years, and you don’t achieve it without looking at some of the more fundamental causes of poor achievement.  I think it’s unfortunate that you suggest that firing ALL of the teachers is a step in the right direction.  It was also disheartening to hear Secretary Duncan and President Obama support the decision.

Firing bad teachers should not be our focus.

I agree that a major problem in American education is teachers who should be doing something else with their lives.  I’ve run into more than a few of them in my limited experience teaching.  And I agree that getting these people out of teaching could greatly benefit thousands of students across the country.  However, I’m afraid there are a few problems in making this the focus of our educational reform efforts.

1)      There is widespread disagreement over what good teaching really is.  There are a multitude of teaching styles and personalities that might be considered “effective.”  However, the only real way to gauge whether a teacher is doing their job or not is to attempt to measure their impact on students.  Unfortunately, the only way we know how to do this in the US is through the use of standardized tests, which, in most states/districts, only asses two or three subject areas and are riddled with problems. 

This past year, my effectiveness as a world history teacher was judged based on how well I was preparing students for the English test (since world history is not tested and therefore does not impact the school’s statistics).  I was told by administrators (who risked losing their jobs if test scores dropped) to spend less time focusing on history and more time focused on literacy.  My ratings were based on it, and my job depended on it.  I was, in effect, not allowed to effectively teach my content area so that I could be rated as “effective.”

The numerous pitfalls with standardized testing are what make Florida Senate Bill 6 so scary for educators, and it’s articles like yours that provide fuel to the lawmakers that would suggest such a bill.  Tying teachers' pay and job security to student performance is not a recipe for long-term, widespread success.  The results of this bill will be the increasing draw of young, inexperienced teachers to schools and states that treat their teachers with the lack of respect Florida Senate Bill 6 demands and the fleeing of experienced, more professional teachers to schools that appreciate their experience and professionalism.

2)      A focus on firing teachers will not have changed anything about the way that we recruit and train incoming teachers.  As a result, a continued focus on firing bad teachers will dominate our efforts as we would presumably continue to bring the same proportion of lame ducks into the profession.  A much more effective method of transforming our teaching force would begin by requiring all teachers to do a 1-2 year residency program at an excellent school under the guidance of a master teacher.  I would additionally advocate paying teachers more to start off in order to draw more people into the profession.  I can’t tell you how many people I talked to in college who told me that they were going into teaching because they didn’t know what else to do OR how many very intelligent people told me they wouldn’t consider education because it didn’t pay well.  The unfortunate reality in our society is that prestige and status depend largely on how much you make.  If you want to change the image of teaching, and thus the people who go into the profession, you’re going to have to change the amount they make to start out.

I can hear the response to my arguments: “You teachers just don’t want to be held accountable for your teaching.” Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience.  Good teachers hold themselves more responsible for their students learning than they probably should.  A well-trained teacher assesses their students day after day and works continuously to meet the needs of his or her students.  I doubt many would resent a fair assessment method that takes into account their students’ backgrounds and willingness to participate in the classroom.  Unfortunately, standardized testing doesn’t do that.

Ultimately, the biggest problems in American education include our democracy’s lack of concern for the quality of education being provided to our most disadvantaged communities, the direction of education organizations by politicians with little to no experience in education (see the recently publicized Texas Board of Education), and our predisposition for quick fixes and immediate gratification when it comes to overcoming large-scale political challenges.  None of these, however, were mentioned in your article.

I hope you have read this letter in its entirety and will consider the nuances it raises concerning education reform that you overlooked in your article prior to writing anything further on the topic.  I would be pleased if journalists and policy leaders could be more considerate of the real-world classroom environment encountered on a daily basis by teachers across the country in this debate, and I think our democracy would be far better served were that the reality.  I realize that you write articles as a means of generating income (and necessarily have to produce something that aligns with your editors' and readers' dispositions), but a more careful consideration of the consequences of such articles would be beneficial. 

I thank you for reading.


The Reflective Educator


  1. I work with a lot of Lithuanians, and they're extremely well educated -- if our education is only as good as Lithuania's, perhaps that's pretty good!

  2. Ha - a point I'd not considered, Tom. Perhaps so.

  3. I hope you're sending this directly to them, as well. They need to read it.

    Please follow up with them. Call them on the phone. Bug them until they read it.

  4. Thanks, Kings. I did send it to them, and I will follow up. Although I'm sure they're busy writing more stories about things they don't understand all that well.

  5. Excellent post, RE. It isn't surprising to me that good educators with experience advocate roughly the same thing - a mentoring program for new teachers coming into a system in order for them to gain the experience they really need in the classroom. I once made the suggestion that this is what should be done with TFA and DCTF - they should be in the classroom as the second teacher, partnered with an experienced teacher(10 years or more). After all, that is what happened to Michelle Rhee in Baltimore. Her first year was a disaster so they paired her with an experienced teacher for the next two years. The problem is there is not a lot of common sense right now in an area that needs it most.

  6. Thanks for your comment! :)

    I will be sticking with PGCTF, but I hope to work in DCPS someday when I'm not as disposable!

    I've enjoyed reading Filthy Teaching, will add Urban Education to my reading list!

  7. Thanks for writing this open letter. I hope you will join us here in DC to defend public education and attacks on teachers nation wide. We are meeting on Saturday, April 10 @ 12 noon at the U.S. Department of Education along with out teacher colleagues from Michigan and other states. Hope to see you there.


  8. Standing and clapping. I truly hope that the editors take your letter seriously.

  9. Hi RE -

    An interesting and thought provoking rebuttal to the Newsweek essays.

    However, I must respectfully disagree with you.

    To be as direct as I can, I completely support the statement "We Must Fire Bad Teachers." If it is indeed the case that the teacher is the most powerful influence we have on changing the lives of our nation's children (and our nation), how can we not fire bad teachers - and how can anyone argue that we should allow "bad" teachers to continue to teach?

    The real question is in how we measure quality teaching (or more precisely how we determine what "bad" teaching is), and how we create a process where "bad" teachers are removed in a reasonable way and where abuses of power are prevented.

    Saying "no" to changes in what is now a ridiculous tenure system and completely inadequate teacher evaluation isn't going to be (in my humble opinion) a viable long term strategy.

    Keep up the good work RE. I appreciate your writing.

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO

  10. Jason,

    Thanks for your comment. I absolutely welcome the disagreement, but I honestly don't think we disagree all that much. I don't mean to come off as if I think getting rid of ineffective teachers is a bad idea or as if I'm against change. I definitely support both of those things.

    However, I think we'd be better served to FOCUS our energy primarily on creating better training programs and improving teaching's prestige in society BEFORE we focus on getting rid of ineffective teachers.

    Yea - I'd be as happy as anyone to see ineffective teachers removed from their position, but we don't exactly have a massive army of amazing educators out there waiting to take their place. It's an issue of supply (and I think that will make itself even more evident within the next ten years as the recession begins to wear off and the baby boomers begin retiring in droves). A focus on getting rid of ineffective teachers will prove cyclical (in the sense that we'll simply be getting rid of people over and over again because we haven't changed the quality of candidate going into teaching).

    Given that large-scale change in democracy often occurs so slowly and painfully, doesn't it make more sense to improve the quantity of quality candidates prior to putting so much energy into creating "fair" evaluation systems?

    I simply think there's far too much focus in the country right now on what I consider to be relatively easy solutions (firing teachers) that won't lead to long-term payoffs. If we could come together around some meaningful solutions that would not only provide us with quality recruits to fill vacant positions in the future, but also support some of those teachers who may have been deemed "ineffective" in the past, I think we'd be doing ourselves a favor.

  11. As a former teacher, I agree with Reflective Educator that school quality will not be fixed simply by firing "ineffective teachers." In my experience, I found that many factors, independent of the teacher's personal skills and characteristics, impact a teacher's ability to effectively educate his or her students. The biggest issue I noted in my schools was discipline: If the administration and parents did not support teachers in basic discipline, teachers lost their authority in the eyes of the students and it became very difficult to teach effectively.

    This occurred over and over again in schools in which I taught. For instance, I remember one school that had a three tardies = detention policy. However, when I dutifully kept track of tardies and assigned detention accordingly, students complained to their parents and/or guidance counselors, who (along w/ the administration) attempted to pressure me to overturn the detention. This issue has nothing to do with my effectiveness as a teacher. Yet, if the administration and parents band together to refuse to punish students who are repeatedly tardy, the teacher's job becomes that much harder.

    This was just one example, but it was my experience that many factors, including the amount of prep time a teacher had, the number of different subjects assigned at once (including out-of-area subjects), student discipline, supplies (e.g., no paper or non-working copier machines), parents, peers and, of course, the students themselves all had a large impact on the effectiveness of a classroom. Lumping the blame of poor student performance all on individual teachers, ignoring these other variables, is unfair and won't produce the desired results.

  12. Jason Glass, you say: “If it is indeed the case that the teacher is the most powerful influence we have on changing the lives of our nation's children (and our nation), how can we not fire bad teachers….”

    What’s often left out of your statement are the important, mean-changing words, “in school.” That is, teachers are the most powerful “in school”* influence on student achievement (not the expansive “changing the lives of our nation’s children” that you claim above.) This is like saying doctors and nurses are the most powerful “in hospital” influence on people’s health” and trainers are the most powerful “in gym” influence on people’s physical fitness. These things are true and competent doctors, nurses and fitness trainers are valued elements to our well-being; however none of them alone are expected to make us healthy and fit. And let’s face it - some of us are in great shape without seeing doctors or hiring trainers.

    Here are three sources of the limits of teacher impact:
    “An increasing preponderance of educational research has reached the conclusion that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement.” http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2009/0515_obama_budget_berube.aspx

    “Educational research continues to give us clear and convincing proof that the single most powerful in-school factor for student achievement gains is the quality of the teacher.” http://www.temple.edu/lss/fs_midad&snetwork.htm

    “Teacher quality matters. In fact, it is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement.” http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/books_teacher_quality_execsum_intro/

    Your grandiose statement elevates teachers to an impossible expectation of miracle making – an expectation that too many young idealistic teachers accept. It’s only after some experience teaching that these teachers come to realize that the miracle is a sham, or that they don’t measure up. Either way, they leave after a few years – or stay, disillusioned and helpless to make substantive changes, as long as the system depends on miracles and teachers who are demeaned or misunderstood because they don’t perform them. Yes –there will be some bad teachers – and there will also be some incredibly dedicated ones, willing to accept low pay and low status because they know they are helping kids learn against tremendous odds that the kids and the teachers can do little to change.

    Here you find young people like the reflective educator, as well as veterans who are now demeaned further because they’re hoping to receive a pension, after a lifetime of dedication and donating part of their paltry salaries toward students’ needs not met by the school districts.

    Please, Mr. Glass, take the issue I present into consideration before making that statement again. Check out the references yourself. Contact experts in the organizations cited. Don’t spread this misleading information any further. The future of our children’s education is at stake.

  13. E Favorite: Well said.

  14. Thanks, AttorneyDC - same to you.

    Here's how to turn a good teacher into a bad teacher.

    The good teacher, having taught at the same school for 10 years, has a reputation for being tough but fair, for being well versed in her subject matter and an avid supporter of her students in class and in their extracurricular activities. Supplies are plentiful and most parents are very involved in their kids' lives. Most kids are well-behaved and those who aren't are adequately disciplined by the administration.

    The teacher moves to another school where she has no reputation, a non-supportive administration, discipline problems in every class, extremely low parental involvement (many don't even have working phones) and practically no supplies (no teacher's textbooks, no internet access, etc.)

    In the first school, the teacher worked hard and her students did well. In the second school, the teacher works harder and her students don't do nearly as well.

    Is this teacher now bad? Should this teacher be fired and replaced? How will we know if the replacement will be any better? How does this help the kids?

    Isn't it common sense that firing teachers under these conditions does nothing to help kids learn or advance the teaching profession?

    Newsweek - are you listening? Do you care at all about improving education, or are you only bent on firing bad teachers?

  15. E Favorite: You make a good point: In favorable circumstances a teacher can work LESS hard and obtain good results, while in difficult circumstances a teacher can work much HARDER yet obtain worse results.

    I found this to be true myself as a teacher - In my most difficult assignment (multiple subjects to teach with little prep time, students with emotional and learning disabilities, as well as criminal records, little or no parental involvement), I regularly worked 12 hour days - yet struggled to make even basic progress with the students. Conversely, in another teaching assignment (with motivated children, only one subject to prepare, and a supportive administration), I worked fewer hours and had a normal life outside of school, yet obtained much better results for my students.

    Point: A teacher's effectiveness is highly dependent on the environment.

  16. Hi E Favorite,

    I stand behind my statement that the teacher is the most effective resource we have to improve student achievement. Bill Sanders has been writing on that point for over 30 years and there isn't much evidence to say that the teacher isn't the most powerful influence to improve student achievement.

    Certainly socio-economic issues make a difference in achievement, if one only looks from an attainment point of view. However, a more sophisticated view of assessment results through the longitudinal lens allows us to see that low socio-economic or disadvantaged students actually make tremendous growth UNDER THE INSTRUCTION OF QUALITY EDUCATORS.

    I agree that effort needs to be put on the socio-economic context issues as well and I applaud the efforts of places like the Harlem Childrens' Zone to take that next step.

    That said, I still stand behind the Newsweek headline that "We Must Fire Bad Teachers" regardless of the environment.

    I agree EF that the future of our children is at stake - we need a sense of urgency on this issue to get the most effective people we can in front of kids.

    Appreciate the thoughtful dialog all, and that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

    Jason Glass
    Eagle CO

  17. Jason: I think you may be missing the point that E Favorite and I have been making: It's almost impossible to tell which teachers are "good" or "bad" because teaching is affected so greatly by multiple outside factors, ranging from the students themselves, to the administation, to the supplies, to the number of subjects assigned at a time. For example, when a teacher is informed the Friday before Labor Day that he or she will be teaching an entirely new subject this year, starting Tuesday, will you judge that teacher's lesson plans as you would a teacher who's been teaching the same subject for 10 years straight? (This isn't a hypothetical example -- it happened to me.)

    I agree that, in theory, it's important to have "good" teachers. The problem is that teacher quality is subjective (have you ever had a teacher that you liked, but your next door neighbor didn't?) and it's very difficult to measure, without any good way to tease apart the myriad variables that impact the effectiveness of any classroom.

  18. Actually DC, I think I get your point pretty well.

    That is, you don't necessarily disagree that we should "fire bad teachers," your point rather is that there are contextual and measurement issues in determining who bad teachers are. So, the fear is that a "good" teacher might get misidentified as a "bad" teacher due to circumstances outside their control. This is a valid fear and is clearly a central issue that must be confronted.

    I actually believe it is very possible to determine "good" and "bad" teachers (not to mention the 90% in between!). Most teacher evaluations are extremely inadequate for determining this, that is a granted fact. However, that does not mean that its impossible to define "good teaching" or to measure it in a scientifically sound way using multiple evaluators who are trained and reliable and multiple data indicators.

    Please don't misunderstand my message as a person who seeks to cause a wholesale firing of teachers based on poor measures. Rather, I advocate for a selective culling based on valid and sound measures across a reasonable period of time.

    There surely must be some reasonable common ground between the "fire everybody" and "fire nobody" dichotomy.

    Good discussion! Thanks to RE for starting the fire (no pun intended)!


  19. Jason: Good luck coming up with an evaluation method that works effectively to cull the "good" from the "bad" (seriously, it's a difficult endeavor).

    My problem is that while we wait for a great teacher evaluation method (not yet discovered), we get articles like the one in Newsweek that focus education reform on firing teachers... which not a particularly effective way to improve schools, in my opinion. Study after study shows that the most important factor for scholastic success is the student's own family (including family SES and, in my opinion, cultural attitudes toward education), which is not under the control of the typical classroom teacher. I recall very good students continuing to do well even with mediocre teachers, and poor students continuing to struggle even with experienced and dedicated teachers. While attacking teachers is one way to approach the problem, it does not in any way appear to be the most effective way. Especially without any administrative support for student discipline (e.g., detention, not allowing disruptive students to return to the classroom immediately, etc.), teachers of challenging students will continue to have difficulty, and teachers of motivated, high-performing students will continue to "do well."

  20. Point: A teacher's effectiveness is highly dependent on the environment.

    So true - unless you're a miracle-worker, of course.

  21. Thanks for the well wishes DC in designing an effective teacher evaluation system.

    I've actually been working on it for the past 3 years here in Eagle County, CO.

    Our system has multiple evaluators, observational and longitudinal components, is based on a research proven paradigm of quality teaching, requires 5 days of evaluator training to administer, and correlates with our growth measures of student achievement via the Value-Added method.

    You are right, its not easy. But that is not to say that it can't, or shouldn't be done. I would argue that the work in defining quality teaching, in measuring it, and in teaching other teachers how to improve - may be the most significant effort we can undertake.

    EF I disagree that a teacher's effectiveness is highly dependent on the environment. I would argue the converse - that the educational environment is highly dependent on the teacher.

    That's one I'm sure we'll go round and round about and is probably a "chicken and egg" question!

    Again, good conversation all.


  22. JG: I agree, good conversation. Congratulations on working to develop a better teacher evaluation system than the ones currently in place in most districts. However, I still wonder if any evaluation system can really control for all the outside variables. For instance, in my experience, one major factor in my lesson planning as a teacher was how many different subjects I was assigned to teach at once. If I had 5 periods of U.S. History, my U.S. History lessons would be better than if I had 2 periods of U.S. History, one period of World History, and 2 periods of 10th grade English. Obviously, if I was preparing for three subjects, I couldn't spend all my prep time on U.S. History. Would this type of variable be taken into account in your system?

    There are so many variables, I'd think it would be very difficult to compare teachers across different subject areas, levels (e.g., basic, honors, AP), and grades. I'd be interested in seeing your final evaluation system. In the meantime, it seems that Newsweek is all set to fire "bad" teachers based on the old evaluation system, which basically consists of a few short observations by a principal who probably is not certified in the teacher's subject area. Sigh.

  23. Wow - great discussion here.

    Jason - a few things I want to take issue with (surprise, surprise).

    You say:

    "However, a more sophisticated view of assessment results through the longitudinal lens allows us to see that low socio-economic or disadvantaged students actually make tremendous growth UNDER THE INSTRUCTION OF QUALITY EDUCATORS."

    My experience with statements like that is that they're usually made by politicians or superintendents/chancellors who are trying to the country that they can solve education's problems. I agree that a great teacher can have an amazing impact on any student who wants to learn. But when you have a classroom of students who really have no interest being there (and I suspect you see more of this in some districts than in others), I truly doubt the ability of anybody to make a SIGNIFICANT impact on them. Could you please supply your evidence for that statement?

    You also say:

    "I would argue that the work in defining quality teaching, in measuring it, and in teaching other teachers how to improve - may be the most significant effort we can undertake."

    I completely agree. While I was sitting through DC's IMPACT (the name of DC's evaluation protocol), I was thinking just that. More than anything, this process will help us define what we mean by good teaching. However, I'm afraid that we may be getting ahead of ourselves just a little. I think empirically identifying what helps a child learn can be outrageously difficult, and downright impossible in some contexts. So we may have research that says certain strategies work, but I'm not sure that means that those will always be the best strategies given the skill sets of a particular educator.

    Finally, you also say:

    "However, that does not mean that its impossible to define "good teaching" or to measure it in a scientifically sound way using multiple evaluators who are trained and reliable and multiple data indicators."

    Honestly, I'm not sure if it could ever be possible to define good teaching, especially scientifically. Not everything in education can be quantified or measured. I've seen teachers who probably never used a research-based strategy, and who's kids probably never heard of a standard, but who nevertheless managed to inspire students to consume as much knowledge as they could possibly get their heads around. How do you measure the ability to inspire? Surely, that has to be included in the discussion of what a good teacher is.

    Also, even in DC's incredibly detailed evaluation rubric, there is still the issue of only being observed for 30 minutes (five times per year). One thing I've learned teaching thus far is that a lot of what great teachers do is often invisible to those who come in to watch them for one or two days. A great teacher might do something in 30 minutes that appears to be useless to an outside observer, but because that activity was placed within the context of what the teacher had done for the previous two weeks, s/he made a huge (unobservable) impact on students.

    I honestly think that the only person who's qualified to truly evaluate a teacher's performance is that teacher (or somebody who is in the classroom with them every minute of every day), which is why I believe it is more important to focus our energy on training excellent teachers than it is to focus on trying to figure out a way to weed out the bad ones.

    None of this is to say that I'm against teacher evaluations. It's just that I think their ability to impact teacher quality is minimal. I've read a few people recently advocating eliminating them in favor of Japanese lesson study, the idea being that teachers using time to observe each other and discuss would be a better use of time.

    Sorry - that was long.

  24. An excellent perspective DC.

    Our evaluation system is based on Charlotte Danielson's framework and is not dependent on subject area. It identifies areas that should be in place for excellent teaching across subject areas. Stuff like:

    Quality Assessments
    Standards and Objectives
    Quality Questioning
    Safe Learning Environment
    Established Behavioral Expectations
    etc, etc, etc

    While these things may differ in how they look in different grades and subject areas, they are pretty universally agreed to as components of "good teaching."

    Its certainly not perfect, but its a learning, adaptive system - and I'd argue far better than the typical "drive by" and "everyone exceeds expectations" evaluation systems you typically see.

    I guess my point is that we should be looking at what quality teaching is, finding ways to measure it, rewarding those who are really good at it, and yes "firing" those who aren't.

    I can't really see a reasonable alternative, except just cruising along with the status quo ... which I don't think is politically feasible.


  25. Sorry for responding out of order RE. I must have been posting the same time you were!

    Google and read anything William Sanders and June Rivers have written over the past 30+ years and the tons of studies on teacher quality out of that same research paradigm. They all point to the same conclusion - that the teacher is the most powerful and significant agent in improving student achievement. Remember, in their studies, achievement is operationalized as "value added" growth, so they are looking at how much improvement the teacher added to the kid. Not just a simplistic "attainment" based look at student achievement.

    And I have to question your statement about a teacher not being able to make a significant impact on a group of kids. A poor teacher certainly won't be able to. A mediocre teacher might reach some of them. But a truly extraordinary and great teacher finds a way to reach these kinds of kids. That's what makes them great.

    It may be a difference of opinion on "defining quality teaching." If you hold that its undefinable, then yes it would also be unmeasurable. I don't see it that way. There are clear things that great teachers do and poor teachers do not, with all shades between. Identifying these concepts is important. If we can't even identify them, how can we ever hope to have any positive effect on any teacher.

    I'm not that hopeless. I really think that the concepts are definable, measurable, and can be taught. I really believe that if you take someone who has the heart of a teacher, and can form quality relationships with kids, you can arm them with the tools of the trade to make an impact.

    I'll leave the last word on this to someone else - my views (at this point!) must be well understood.

    I appreciate the civility of this discussion. Sadly and often these kinds of talks escalate to flame wars. I'm glad this hasn't!

    Best wishes to all.


  26. Jason --What if a teacher is well versed in his subject matter, well liked and respected by the students, the parents, his colleagues, and the students are doing very well and clamoring to getting into his class year after year. Also, perhaps the teacher has won regional awards and is active in after-school activities, but doesn't do well in your evaluation?

  27. Sadly, Jason, my experience leads to me to disagree with your argument that a truly extraordinary teacher can find a way to reach a classroom of kids who are simply not interested. Now - please don't take this to mean that I don't think that we should try, or that we shouldn't say (for political purposes) that we believe all children can learn and succeed, but (in a high school setting) where a teacher interacts with students between 5-8 hours a week, and their peers/family interact with them constantly (in addition to the fourteen previous years of their lives when they were being impacted by God knows what), I just don't think that even a miracle worker would be able to reach some of these kids. (Keep in mind that I'm talking about some of our most disadvantaged kids here - the ones who probably need tons of therapy, rehabilitation, and removal from their home lives - which is what we often see concentrations of in our inner-cities.)

    Now, this discussion gets personal because I've had entire classrooms of students who were in gangs, on drugs, pregnant, hated me for no other reason than that I was the teacher, and went out of their way on a daily basis to disrupt everything I tried to do. And I tried EVERYTHING in my power to engage them, communicate with their families, and provide them with a quality education, and I can honestly say that I don't think I did much for any of them. And I consider myself to be intelligent, excellent with people (especially teenagers), and committed to making a difference in all students lives. So maybe I hold onto my belief that (given the finite resources we have in our lives) some students (and sometimes entire classes of students) simply aren't reachable because if you're right (and great teachers can reach them), then that means that maybe I'm not cut out for this, even though I want to commit my life to education and teaching. So I acknowledge that as a possibility, but also would add that I've yet to see a miracle worker make large strides with the types of students I'm talking about. Experience tells me that work with these students is constant, and gains are often minimal (small victories) and tenuous. I believe in working my ass off for student success, but I also believe that as one person you have to make decisions about who to spend your time on, and where you can make the biggest impacts.

    Lastly, concerning teacher evaluation: I think there's maybe more agreement among us that appears on the surface. I do think there are very general things that we can observe about good teaching (e.g. a good teacher doesn't escalate conflict, a good teacher has objectives for their lesson plans, a good teacher provides students with consistent routines and establishes positive relationships) - absolutely. However, it's when you get into the specifics concerning which strategy may be best, or whether this five-minute span of time was more effective than that five-minute span of time, that I believe teacher evaluations begin to loose their credibility (even though I agree, the conversations are certainly worthwhile - it's just that tying a person's pay to them often is far too subjective way to compensate educators in my view).

    And I would go back to my previous point that evaluations are simply not as valuable to most teachers' time as observing other teachers and discussing, or having the opportunity to sit down and discuss exactly what particular students need.

  28. Efav - If I were presented with your hypothetical situation, I'd probably think first that I have a reliability problem in my evaluation and I'd probably look to retrain or remove the evaluator.

    However, our evaluation system factors in the things you mention ... so it would be highly unlikely you'd have those positive things going on and the evaluation instrument not measure that and reflect it. If that happened, I'd look for a reliability problem and correct that.

    To RE - keep working your ass off. I've found that to be practically the most effective strategy to do just about anything. Couple that with a spirit of true lifelong learning, innovation, and adaptation ... I see many more successes than failures in your future as an educator.

  29. To Jason and RE -- what about a teacher who has all the right qualities, gets good evaluations, the kids are attentive, but their scores don't rise? Is this a bad teacher? What if they are 10th graders and most of them have grade-school reading levels – is it the teacher’s fault if they can’t handle 10th grade material?

    Jason - sorry, but saying Google this or that is not enough for me. If you have specific sources, please cite them, as I did. And just because someone has been saying something for a long time, doesn't make it true.

    Truly, you're starting to sound more like a salesman than an educator.

    First you say, ““If it is indeed the case that the teacher is the most powerful influence we have on changing the lives of our nation's children (and our nation), how can we not fire bad teachers….”

    Then you say, “I stand behind my statement that the teacher is the most effective resource we have to improve student achievement.”

    After that, you say, “the teacher is the most powerful and significant agent in improving student achievement.”

    These are not all the same thing – you’ve moved from the very broad: “changing the lives of our nation’s children” to the more subdued and specific: teacher as “most effective recourse we have to improve student achievement” then to the more grandiose: teacher as “most powerful and significant agent in improving student achievement.”

    But the message is still the same – it’s all about the teacher. Even your suggestion that RE keep working his ass off implies that if only he tried harder, he could improve his students academically despite all the other influences in their lives.

  30. I'm admittedly a poor salesman E Fav! It was never my calling.

    I'm not trying to convince you of anything. Clearly we're coming from different perspectives on this (read my blog on Reformation versus Transformation) and its not likely we're going to convince each other of anything. Mostly, I've enjoyed the debate and discussion on its merits alone.

    I'm actually a working HR director so you'll please forgive me for not doing a bibliography for you. But should you have time to investigate, you'll find that my citation of William Sanders, June Rivers, and the flood of other researchers who have replicated and built on their method a sufficient starting point for evidence that the teacher is the most powerful resource for improving student achievement.

    For the sake of brevity, I'll not make a defense of what will (I'm sure) become an endless set of hypothetical "what if" statements. I am not the source for all answers. I am a student of these topics, believe we can grow our knowledge in all of them, and firmly believe that the status quo is not the answer.

    You ask great questions about performance pay, teacher quality, teacher effectiveness, and teacher evaluation.

    Keep asking them - we need these kinds of discussions for our field to grow.

  31. What a thoughtful exchange of views. Looks like I'm a bit late to the party but I'll take a shot.

    I think the main factor that gets folks hung up here is standardized tests - especially the once-a-year reading/math tests. I'm not against them entirely, but they are designed to take a snapshot of a school (especially a large one), a district, region/county, state or nation. They are NOT designed for teacher evaluation, and if you look at the position statements of AERA, APA, and other leading research and educational measurement organizations, they make that exact point: it is not appropriate to make high-stakes decisions based on data on one test outside the realm of the test designers focus. Henry Braun of ETS has made that same point as well. Meanwhile, reports from Ed Sector, the Center for Teaching Quality, and others have cast serious doubt on value-added methodology as well, if the goal is to isolate teacher effectiveness. The main problems are sample size and inability to control for significant factors that influence outcomes. The fact that William Sanders has argued consistently for a system in which he has a huge financial stake and a proprietary formula that prevents transparency does not impress me in the least.

    I've administered hundreds of these tests, for over a decade. Half the students taking them don't care about the outcome. They know the tests are meaningless for them - no grades attached, little connection to the content of their curriculum. In high schools, they're exhausted from homework, and from testing - APs, SATs, ACTs, SAT II, and school tests. If you know it's a one-day measure, and the kids don't care about it, and there are dozens of uncontrolled factors, then how can you use those results to measure teacher effectiveness?

    For uncontrolled factors, consider these realities. Lack of random distribution is huge. At different times of day, you get different mixes of students, meaning that teachers of the same course have de facto tracking in ways that won't show up on the tests. That scheduling will also give students different science and history teachers, for example, some of whom do a great job adding to students' reading skills, and some of whom do not. Some students get tutoring, and some do not. Those factors make a difference. Sanders would say that over enough years, you can even out the bumps in the data. Lovely - guarantee me three years in a row of holding all those factors constant and we'll talk. Anyone know a high school that works that way? Is there a statistical model for hiring our fifth principal in nine years?

    Okay, now go to your Charlotte Danielson framework for teacher evaluation, and just forget the friggin' test scores. Let those test scores do their job at the district or state level. Do you really need test scores to tell if someone is doing everything they should be doing? Lesson planning? Differentiation? Collaboration and common assessments? Knowledge of subject and teaching methods? No - you need a robust evaluation system that can look at OTHER evidence of student achievement.

    Dump the use of those tests for teacher evaluation! End rant.

  32. Thanks for the comment, David. I'm afraid this discussion is the first I've heard of William Sanders. Any chance you or Jason could say more about him?

    Also - are any of the reports you reference from Ed Sector or the Center for Teaching Quality online?

  33. Ha - so I'm realizing that it's pretty embarrassing that I don't know anything about this guy given that I got my degrees at the same place he did. Time to do some homework.

  34. Jason - I'm still asking you for direct citations, with links to the research you cite.

    And I was not calling you a poor salesman, I was calling you a salesman more than an educator. I'll now say that you sound like more of a salesman than an HR professional - not a slight to either occupation. But when someone continuously avoids answering a direct question while advocating an idea or a product, I think in terms of a salesperson - someone trying mainly to convince not inform, rather than a person, like a teacher or an HR professional who possesses and provides factual information that will assist others.

  35. JG: I appreciate that the evaluation system you describe is not based simply student performance on a standardized test:

    "Our evaluation system is based on Charlotte Danielson's framework and is not dependent on subject area. It identifies areas that should be in place for excellent teaching across subject areas. Stuff like:

    Quality Assessments
    Standards and Objectives
    Quality Questioning
    Safe Learning Environment
    Established Behavioral Expectations"

    However, from my experience as a teacher in a wide variety of classrooms, I believe that many of the items identified on your list will be impacted by the "outside" factors I've previously referenced. For example, Safe Learning Environment: It's very difficult to establish a safe learning environment for students when the administration (for political, personal or legal reasons) will not enforce discipline of students who commit serious behavior infractions, including assaulting the teacher or other students. Another example, Quality Assessments: If a teacher is assigned only one subject per year (e.g., 5 periods of American History), it's much easier to create 'quality assessments' for that subject than if the teacher is assigned two, three, or even four different subjects at once. How much time do you think it takes to create a high quality end of unit test? If the teacher has 3 different subjects to prepare, take that time and triple it. If the teacher is new (or new to the subject or the school), it will be even more difficult to produce high quality lessons and assessments right off the bat.

    My point is that teachers cannot be judged on their "teaching quality" independent of the myriad factors and influence their classrooms. I know: As a former teacher, I was able to miraculously create excellent lesson plans and have no discipline problems when I was assigned 5 periods of the same honors class; Mere months later I was shockingly unable to create lesson plans or maintain discipline when I was assigned three different subjects along with very difficult students with emotional, learning, and legal problems (e.g., criminal convictions). How would you judge me as a teacher without taking the situation into account?

  36. Correction: I meant to write "create excellent lesson plans" rather than "create lesson plans" in the final paragraph, above.

  37. First look at the new teacher contract in DC over at the City Paper, lets take a look and get ready to discuss - this looks really interesting. Reflective Educator, now you're back up and running (37 posts) can you start a new link. http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2010/04/06/dcps-teacher-contract-to-be-unveiled-big-raises-funded-by-65m-in-private-money/

  38. Anon at 311: Thanks for the link. I'd be happy to post this. It'll be interesting to see how people feel about this as it comes out. The political climate has granted a big victory for Rhee for sure.

  39. For EFav as a starting point in his/her research.


    With kind regards...

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO