You Are a Highly Skilled Teacher If….

by Robert Pondiscio
August 23rd, 2009

…you never have more than five instances of “inappropriate or off-task behavior” by students within a half-hour of class time.

…you respond to students’ correct answers by “probing for higher-level understanding” of the idea being discussed at least three times every half hour.

…you lose no more than three minutes of teaching time to poor organization or planning.

Who says so?  Why, Michelle Rhee says so.


  1. “…you never have more than five instances of “inappropriate or off-task behavior” by students within a half-hour of class time.”

    In my school: Good. Fracking. Luck.

    Comment by Obi-Wandreas — August 23, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  2. At the risk of nit-picking, if Johnny gets angry and turns over his desk, and 24 other kids stop and look, is Johnny off-task? Or are all 25 students off-task? If this happens even once are you not a highly skilled teacher? (“Never” being a rather unambiguous term).

    It’s interesting to me that someone would try to codify the classroom conditions that differentiate effective from ineffective teaching. But putting specific counts on incidents and actions is somewhat arbitrary to put it mildly.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 23, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

  3. The article also contains this line:

    “The changes are an attempt to make performance reviews more objective and less vulnerable to school politics or personal issues.”

    I think anyone who has taught or worked in schools knows politics and personal vendettas can be a problem with evaluations. (Am I wrong assuming this is true at most/many schools?)

    I am not sure Michelle Rhee’s objective criteria driven plan is a good solution to it, but I also cannot think of any better idea. Anyone else?

    Comment by Matt — August 23, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  4. Agree, Matt. That said, based on my personal experience and teachers I’ve worked with, I think it’s fair to say that if an administration wants to get rid of a teacher (whether by firing or simply making his or her life unpleasant) it’s not hard to find some reason to justify to dismissal. At the risk of sounding cynical, a list of criteria will make this easier to do. In 200-pages off regulations, it’ll presumably easy to find something teacher is doing wrong, if you’re inclined to do so.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 23, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

  5. The article also says that effective teachers work with students’ “learning styles.” For instance, a “tactile learner” may use popsicle sticks in a lesson about triangles.

    I can see it coming:

    “Hey, Miss Glenn, I’m a tactile learner too! How come I don’t get any popsicle sticks?”

    But the successful teacher will recognize that everyone is a tactile learner to some degree. The proof is that they are all excited over popsicle sticks. She will give popsicle sticks to all the students and put them in differentiated groups. Those who are also largely auditory learners will get to use their iPods as well as popsicle sticks. The visual learners will get to look at triangles on the Internet while making triangles of their own. The kinesthetic learners will get to walk around from learning center to learning center, doing a bit of this, a bit of that. And the brain learners will be told to just busy themselves with a book for a little while or maybe get a head start on their homework.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 23, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  6. <<< The kinesthetic learners will get to walk around from learning center to learning center, doing a bit of this, a bit of that.

    "Miss Senechal, please explain why I see your kinesthetic learners engaged in inappropriate and off-task behaviors more than five times in each half-hour every time I visit your classroom."

    The Administration.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 23, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  7. Dear Administration,

    “In our last PD on differentiated instruction, we were taught that there are two kinds of differentiation: differentiation of process and differentiation of product. The kinesthetic learners are differentiated in both ways. Their behaviors are off-task from an auditory learner perspective, but on-task from a kinesthetic learner perspective. Since we focus on the individual needs of each child, the perspective of the kinesthetic child should prevail.”


    Diana Senechal

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 23, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

  8. Dear Ms. Senechal:

    Do you consider it acceptable classroom management to allow your kinesthetic learners to distract and create off-task behavior in your auditory learners?

    The Adminstration

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 23, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

  9. Dear Adminstration,

    I do recognize the potential problem to which you refer. I must say it has me stumped! I tried to address it with whole-class instruction, but I was told that was a big no-no. I tried to address it by limiting the kinesthetic portion of the lesson to a short “stretch and walk” at the end, but the kinesthetic kids said they would sue for discrimination. I suspect they are all a bit bored. This “Explorations of Triangles” unit has been going on a bit too long, and I think everyone in the class knows what a triangle is. Perhaps we should consider teaching them something.


    Diana Senechal

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 23, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  10. I love the “conversation” with administration. Sad thing is, many will get notes and evals with those exact words…and it won’t be a joke!
    Thanks for the laugh! I needed it.

    Comment by Tamara — August 23, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

  11. Don’t take this the wrong way, but, I think I love Diana Senechal!

    And it does seem that the new regulations WILL make it easier to fire a teacher on purely political grounds.

    And the conflicting strategies Diana so wonderfully illustrated in her “response” to “administration” are another weapon in the administration’s arsenal to portray a teacher as “bad”.

    When will the pendulum swing in favor of children?

    Comment by TFT — August 23, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  12. I believe Michelle Rhee has hired Jonathan Saphier as a consultant for the DC public schools. His book, the Skillful Teacher, contains many of these regimented parameters teachers are supposed to be following.

    On another note, I’m glad to see Robert finally has his blog back up and running.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 23, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  13. Sigh. The theory behind her statements are great, but in real life practical application, that can’t happen. I wish that all administrators would realize that each classroom must look different to accommodate the needs of all of the students. I have 19 first graders, one who can barely speak coherently due to developemental delays, another in a wheelchair who needs a para full time and who misses a fairly good part of each day to meet his physical needs, his speech needs, his OT needs. Aside from those two, I have one who has multiple meltdowns daily anytime he is asked to come to the carpet, go to his desk, work independently, work with a partner, work with a group, line up, hush, or any other direction that the other 18 kids follow.

    I have had four different administrators come into my room: one noted that the whole class was off task due to the fact that we were doing a “pair share” to respond to literature. Another said the class was fine. The third said that the three students who have issues need to have more one on one teacher time, and want the para out of the room during class, and the last stated that because I wasn’t doing the exact same lesson the exact same way as the other two first grade teachers (neither of whom were doing the same thing either), and some of my kids were being differentiated for in what they produce, that I would have received failing marks on my evaluation. At the end of our lessons, 98% of the kids could demonstrate that they had achieved the objective…but no one bothered to stay for the end of the lesson.


    Comment by Teresa — August 23, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

  14. I see the value in *describing* the attributes of highly effective teaching. That’s legitimately helpful. It’s when you use language like a good teacher “never” lets X happen, or does Y “at least” three times when this has the potential to become less about improving teaching and more about using regulations to play gotcha.

    I think I’m a reasonably effective teacher, with pretty tight classroom management. Not the best, but far from the worst. Did I *never* have more than five instances of “inappropriate or off-task behavior” by students within a half-hour of class time”? Hell, no. In fact, that probably occurred at least once a week in a *good* week.

    Did I respond to students’ correct answers by “probing for higher-level understanding of the idea being discussed?” All the time. Was it at least three times every half hour? No way, no how.

    Words matter. By these definitions, it’s possible there might not be a single highly skilled teacher in the U.S.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 23, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

  15. Okay, that was the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time–my favorite part where the “school leader” spoke anonymously because she “wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.” Wasn’t it Deming who said the first thing that had to be done in a high-functioning organization was drive out fear?

    This was a delicious discussion! Really enjoyed it. The thing I found most interesting was the fact that Rhee (and her go-to consultant) created 200 pages of description about something that the “reform community” in power for the last 8 years seems to think doesn’t exist: pedagogy. The list of things that good teachers were supposed to do read like the syllabi from teacher-prep methods classes, c. 1975.

    Only now they’re quantitative, and attached to consequences. I guess that’s the difference. We don’t have any helpful new ideas about classroom management in the 21st century, but we’ve decided to punish you when you fail, anyway.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — August 23, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

  16. Does anyone remember Madeline Cheek Hunter and her “Madeline Hunter-type” lesson? The ‘Hunterization’ of teaching has even led some districts to require teachers to utilize the Hunter approach and base their teacher evaluation instruments on it. Hunter herself lamented this misuse of her methods and claimed that there was no such thing as a “Madeline Hunter-type” lesson.

    So much for teaching to the assessment tests. Let’s have teachers worry about teaching to a structured format just to keep their job.

    Comment by Steve Dudenhoeffer — August 24, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  17. Doesn’t it matter whether the “off-task” behavior is educational (what we in the homeschooling community refer to as a “rabbit trail”) vs. simply a disruption?

    Some of the best teachers I had growing up did not strictly keep to the “official” syllabus but merely considered that a basic framework and allowed plenty of time for discussion of related topics. Would they be reprimanded by Ms. Rhee?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 24, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

  18. Short answer, Crimson Wife: yes.

    What Michelle Rhee has demanded here is tightly interwoven with fidelity to scripted curricula. Large districts which purchase “teacher proofed” programs are offered the services of fidelity monitors who roam classrooms, checking to see whether teachers are on the designated page, performing the correct instructional strategy, at the assigned time.

    Any little bunny who gets interested in something–even something very productive and intellectually challenging–and wants to pursue a rabbit trail is stopped. Immediately.

    I thought this was all hype, until I witnessed it, in a large urban near my home.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — August 24, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  19. A few assumptions and then a question:

    1) There are not enough quality teachers in America to go around.
    2) Under current market conditions, (Degrees required to be a teacher. Hoops to jump through for licensure and pay for example.) there is unlikely ever going to be enough quality teachers to go around.
    3) Some (many) students are and will be stuck with poor quality teachers.

    If you are an administrator and you know your choice is either
    A) hirer no teacher or
    B) hirer a mediocre or poor teacher
    How do you run your school day-to-day? And I mean this as a real, pragmatic question as it is for many schools and districts.

    I think one of the solutions you might come to, is that you hire a lot of mediocre teachers and try to teacher-proof the classroom and come up with something like Rhee has. If you know you have no choice but to have poor/mediocre teachers in a classroom, what do you do?

    Comment by Matt — August 25, 2009 @ 8:35 am

  20. Matt challenges us to suggest a better system.

    If I were Rhee, I’d create a simple metric with 2 to 5 questions, rated scale of 1 to 10.

    Example: To what degree did the kids actually master the lesson’s aim?

    Then I’d find 30 of my 5,000 teachers to become full-time raters. The 20 would have to show high correlation to one another.

    Example: Candidate raters watch 100 videos. They rate each class. The 20 raters which emerge are those where “my” 7 out of 10 is statistically highly likely to be the same as your rating of the same teacher.

    Then I have my 20 teachers do 180 days * 6 observations per day.

    That means each of my 5,000 teachers gets observed 6 different times over the year, probably by 6 different just-recently-ex teachers. Throw out the high and the low.

    Comment by GGW — August 26, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

  21. @Matt:

    I disagree with your first assumption. Other nations have solved the issue of lousy teachers, long ago, by raising the entrance bar, rigorous and ongoing professional learning, high-quality evaluation systems, professional compensation tied to performance, and so on. Including nations with strong teachers unions (Japan for example).

    Your second assumption is that things will always be the same. That could be true–that we have the knowledge of how to build a world-class teaching force for ALL children, but no political will to back up our false claim of equal opportunity and democratic equality.

    Your third assumption is basically true, of course. There are excellent and bad teachers everywhere, but the kids who get the worst teachers are overwhelmingly poor.

    The question is not how we limp along, blaming teachers for the failings of the political economy–but how soon the dangerous (and I use the word advisedly) gap between haves and have-nots becomes a threat to national security. We may already be there. And that’s not a problem we can solve with scripted curricula.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — August 26, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

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