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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Teachers are Widgets

So President Obama wants to get rid of the bad teachers.


"We need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high," Obama said.


Nobody wants bad teachers. But exactly who are the bad teachers? How do we go about identifying them? Oh, I know. Let's take a look at the teacher evaluations. Surely the evaluations, many of them professionally designed, will point out the bad teachers. After the bad teachers are identified, all that remains is the battle with the teacher's union, whose mission is to make sure bad teachers teach until retirement. (snark alert).

Every school I have ever seen has a program (at least in the employee handbook) for annual evaluations. In my whole career, I have been evaluated just five times by supervisors (principal, vice principal, or department chair). And here is something else everyone knows: the evaluations are worthless. Now a new study by the New Teacher Project confirms what everyone knows. Entitled “The Widget Effect,” the study show that teachers are fungible.

The study illustrates that teacher evaluation systems reflect and codify the “Widget Effect”—the fallacy that all teachers are essentially interchangeable—in several major ways:

All teachers are rated good or great. Less than 1 percent of teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings, even in schools where students fail to meet basic academic standards, year after year.

Excellence goes unrecognized. When excellent ratings are the norm, truly exceptional teachers cannot be formally identified. Nor can they be compensated, promoted or retained.

Professional development is inadequate. Almost 3 in 4 teachers did not receive any specific feedback on improving their performance in their last evaluation.

Novice teachers are neglected. Low expectations for beginning teachers translate into benign neglect in the classroom and a toothless tenure process.

Poor performance goes unaddressed. Half of the districts studied have not dismissed a single tenured teacher for poor performance in the past five years.


The worthlessness of evaluations creates a major disconnect in the school policy.

Though it is widely accepted that a teacher’s effectiveness matters more than any other school factor in student success or failure, it is almost never considered in critical decisions such as how teachers are hired, developed or retained.


Teacher effectiveness cannot be considered because teacher effectiveness is unknown. What's more, researchers have no consensus as to the characteristics of an effective teacher.
I would like to address the first two points.

All teachers are rated good or great. And because all teachers are good or great, excellence goes unrecognized.
At best, evaluations are worthless. In many schools, an evaluation is a pro forma process, if it happens at all. The busy administrator visits the class for a few minutes, walks out and writes the glowing report.

At worst, the evaluation is a retaliatory or evidence-fabrication tool. I am reminded of the young elementary art teacher whose reputation for excellence was well-known by staff and parents alike. Teachers dropping off their class at her classroom often lingered and teachers retrieving their class often came early to observe and hopefully glean some useful tips. One fine April morning the vice principal came to observe a class period and stayed for the whole class. His one and only comment after the class left: he did not like that the students were allowed to chat with their neighbors as they worked on their art.

The resulting evaluation was a disaster. On a 5-point scale, her average came to 2.7. She objected to the principal and he allowed her to write a rebuttal. But the rebuttal went nowhere. All that survived of the evaluation was the average which appeared on a list of all the teachers with all their 4.X averages. The school submitted the list to the district office.

She complained bitterly to the principal who told her not to worry—it would have no effect on her future career. She complained to her colleagues, some of whom interceded for her with the principal. You see, this young teacher had rebuffed the vice principal's advances at the school Christmas party. Her colleagues suggested the principal replace the vice principal's evaluation with one of his own, but he refused, saying it would be unseemly to override the vice-principal.

This story is not a fluke. Evaluations, if done at all, are often undertaken only because the teacher has entered the administrator's radar for some reason. In such situations, greatness cannot help but go unrecognized. I would go so far as to say that Teachers of the Year are not necessarily the top teachers. They are teachers with spare time. Many of the best teachers are simply too busy to fulfill the onerous essay and video requirements to be considered for a Teacher of the Year award.

What, you say. You thought Teachers of the Year were nominated for doing their jobs every day. Most Teachers of the Year are self-nominated. Typical is the application for the Arizona Teacher of the Year.

Teacher nominees/applicants must submit a written application that is reviewed by a panel of judges consisting of educators, students and members of the business community. Ten finalists are selected from the written applications.

The 10 finalists are asked to prepare a 15-minute videotape. The final selection process includes review of the videotape, an interview and an impromptu speech by each of the 10 finalists. Following that process, the Teacher of the Year is selected along with four “Ambassadors for Excellence” and five finalists. The Teacher of the Year and Ambassadors have multiple opportunities during the year to make public appearances throughout the state, speaking to professional, civic, educational, parent and student groups. (my bold)


The written application includes 13 double-spaced pages of essay material:

Educational History and Professional Development Activities (2 double-spaced typed pages) – 5 points
Professional Biography (2 double-spaced typed pages) – 5 points
Community Involvement (1 double-spaced typed page) – 5 points
Philosophy of Teaching (2 double-spaced typed pages) – 15 points.
Education Issues and Trends (2 double-spaced typed pages) – 15 points
The Teaching Profession (2 double-spaced typed pages) – 20 points
National Teacher of the Year Message (1 double-spaced typed page) – 10 points
Arizona Teacher of the Year Message (1 double-spaced typed page) – 10 points

The school administrator must agree in writing to approve up to 30 days for a substitute teacher to allow for newly-minted teacher of the year public appearances.


You may be the greatest teacher in the world, but if you are, and you are honest, you are very likely not going to write essays that will get you selected as teacher of the year, especially when you write about “education issues and trends” and “the teaching profession.” John Taylor Gatto was voted New York's Teacher of the Year in 1991 and immediately, with his acceptance speech, began telling everyone about the insidious goal of compulsory education to de-educate students. He has written several books, all with the same message. Somehow I have trouble believing the message he proclaimed from the Teacher of the Year platform was the same message he told the committee he would proclaim when he wrote his application essays.

Neither the complicated, multifaceted, self-selected Teacher of the Year evaluations nor the run-of-the-mill annual evaluations performed (or not) in most schools succeed in any meaningful way.

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