Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Public Grading of Teachers

Apparently, I don’t know what good teaching looks like. Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel starts her recent article titled “The Biggest Problem in American K-12 Education?” by asking the question, “What is the ‘crisis’ in American public education today?” Her answer? Teachers, and by extension the general public, do not know what constitutes “effective education.” Actually, the reporter states that “nobody agrees” on what effective teaching looks like. Unfortunately, what the article does prove is that Ms. Richards does not comprehend all that is involved with being an educator. It is unfortunate that her readers’ perception of what constitutes effective education is in part shaped by poorly conceptualized generalizations based on her impressions of a 12-minute video clip.

Ms. Richards’ reactions are based on a presentation given to reporters this past weekend by Tony Wagner of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. Attendees were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher based on a 12-minute video of the teacher conducting a lesson on Steinbeck’s The Pearl. Ms. Richards did not specify whether or not this was an introductory lesson or a closing lesson on the text, whether this was a group of eighth graders or a group of seniors, whether this was taught to a homogenous ability group (leveled-course) or a class of mixed-ability readers and writers, whether or not this was one of the first lessons of the course or the semester’s final discussion. All of these questions should factor into her evaluation of the teacher’s effectiveness. Lacking all of this information, or at the least not sharing this information with her readers, Ms. Richards emphatically declares the students’ writing as, “abysmal in terms of grammar, complex sentence construction and critical thinking,” stating later that “I'm sure we all would have scored the lesson lower if we had seen these writing samples first.” This statement has me the most concerned. Is it fair to grade an educator based on the work produced by his or her students? There are several problems with the approach of grading teachers based on the performance of their students, which is especially evident with the example 12-minute clip that Ms. Richards and her colleagues were shown.

First, by what criteria are teachers judged? Ms. Richards reports that the speaker simply told the room of reporters to write a grade on an index card. No criteria were given, explained, or demonstrated. I highly doubt any teacher in the American educational system today would simply slap a letter grade on an assignment without first explaining a specific set of goals and criteria for how that the piece was to be evaluated. Were the reporters looking at how well the teacher engaged the entirety of the class? Were they evaluating the teacher on his classroom management and discipline style? Were they evaluating the teacher on the content of the lesson? Of course the room of reporters would give varying grades for the teacher in the video. Each reporter in that room was grading the video on a completely different and likely idiosyncratic set of standards. So the crisis more accurately identified by Ms. Richards is not that teachers do not know how to effectively teach. The crisis, instead, is that she and her colleagues do not know how to grade.

This sort of approach to grading teachers is methodologically flawed. Had Ms. Richards’ been educated as a teacher, had this been a room of teachers and educational professionals sharing equivalent levels of educational training and pedagogical concerns, my reactions would certainly be different. But this was not the case. Unfortunately, her words carry added weight as they are presented in a public forum. Her words declare that education is in a crisis because no one is paying attention to what teachers do in the classroom. This is certainly not the case. Just pick up any newspaper in America today. Everyone is looking in on America’s classrooms, from the most qualified to the least.

Am I arguing that public does not have the right to comment on a teacher’s performance? Of course not. Teachers are public servants. Especially, when it comes to the education of children, parents and communities must be involved. However, what I am arguing against is giving a blanket grade to the educational system as a whole and teachers specifically based on one presenter’s comments and a 12-minute video snippet. It is irresponsible and misleading on the part of the media and on the part of Ms. Richards. How should we grade her report?

However, her article does raise a couple of significant questions: 1) Should teachers be “graded” based on their students’ performance? 2) Should there be any national criteria (outside of the employer’s criteria and state criteria already in place) for teacher evaluation? Thoughts?
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