Observations on Observations

by Robert Pondiscio
August 27th, 2009

If you’re a teacher, would you rather be judged by a 200-page list of indicators of highly skilled teaching, or by a principal who shares your philosophy of teaching and learning, supports your approach and pretty much leaves you alone–but has the power to fire you at will? 

This question occurred to me after reading a long and excellent post by John Merrow over at Learning Matters on teacher observations. He concludes that the observation process is “changing for the better in some places, but that, unfortunately, it’s still mostly useless.”

In the old days, teachers closed their doors and did their thing, for better or for worse. As long as things were quiet, administrators [rarely] bothered to open the door to see what was going on, and teachers never watched each other at work. That’s changing, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. In some schools today, teachers are actually expected to watch their peers teach, after which they share their analysis. In other schools, however, principals armed with lists sit in the back of the class checking off ‘behaviors’ and later give the teacher a ‘scorecard’ with her ‘batting average.’

“Whether these observations are diagnostic in nature and therefore designed to help teachers improve or a ‘gotcha’ game is the essential question,” Merrow perceptively observes.  Teacher observations, like test scores, will undoubtedly loom ever larger as the issue of teacher quality bubbles to the top of the nation’s education agenda.  Like test scores, there’s a lot to learn from observations.  And like test scores, we’re equally likely to learn the wrong lessons.

Of all the “best practices” that have migrated to education from the business world, the one that didn’t make the trip is the idea that good managers hire excellent people, empower them with real decision-making authority, then get out of their way.  The closest thing to that in education is “close your door and do your thing,” as Merrow puts it.  That goes against the grain in the Age of Accountability, but it is undeniable that for many excellent and experienced teachers and their students, it works perfectly.   And while that approach is endangered, it has not disappeared.  Nor should it.  The point of any accountability system should be to help bad schools and teachers look and act like good schools and teachers, not the opposite.  Our schools still have plenty of brilliant iconoclasts who do things their own way to great effect. 

For such  teachers nothing could be worse than “observation by checklist,” where the adminstration wants to see what it wants to see: aim and standard on the board?  Check.  Students sitting in groups?  Check.  Updated work on the bulletin board?  Check. A “print rich” environment in “kid-friendly language?” Check.   Ask why these items are important and you’ll invariably hear that it’s what the principal’s supervisor expects to see.  What they are indicative of is lost.  The consummate irony is this kind of evaluation seems rigorous, but it is more likely — much more likely — to create a civil service mentality than to foster excellence.  It’s another variation of the Cargo Cult Education phenomenon.   Teachers and administrators spend all their energy manufacturing the visible markers of learning, often not knowing (and after a while no longer caring) what the “indicators” indicate. 

Indeed, this is the thing the every teacher knows, that every armchair expert does not: it is simple (but time-consuming) to create an environment that gives all the appearances of being a high-functioning classroom and still be a lousy teacher.  Among the very first survival skills a new teacher learns, either through the advice of a kindly colleague or through a series of administrative reprimands, is the art of the dog and pony show.   In some schools, it’s the quid pro quo that earns you the right to close your door and practice your craft.  In more punitive environments, it’s the tail that wags the dog.   But the aim of observation-by-checklist is not great teaching, it’s plausible deniability–and it’s the enemy of accountability, for both teachers and administrators.  Miss Jones’ classroom demonstrates a high degree of student engagement and all of the indicators of high quality teaching, but her students are still not making progress.  Why? Miss Jones’ energy is misdirected.  She’s learning to play the game, not become a great teacher.  After a few years, she gets tired of it and quits.  Mediocrity wins again. 

The bottom line is that great teaching is like Potter Stewart’s definition of hard-core pornography.  It’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.  Unfortunately, that’s never going to cut it in our data-mad, accountability-obsessed age. 

So which would you rather?  Find a school and work with a principal who shares your philosophy and approach, trusts you and supports you, but has the power to fire you at will?  Or a school where your duties are codified to the letter, where you know what’s on the checklist and spend all of your time ‘working to rule‘ and playing “gotcha.”  Where are you going to be happiest and most productive?

Am I the only one who thinks this is what the teacher quality debate is really all about?


  1. Wonderfully lucid post, Robert. You articulate well exactly what I’ve been thinking. Teaching “by the book” is too often deadly dull for kids and teachers. There must be SOUL in a lesson. If the checklist method of evaluation takes hold in my district, I will probably ignore it and continue to do what I think is right. Should they choose to fire me for this, so be it.

    Comment by Ben — August 27, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  2. Robert,

    That is an insightful and provocative reading of the Merrow post. I, too, found the post very interesting, though I wish he had gone a little more into the benefits of being left alone. It seems we are moving farther and farther away from being left alone; videotaping is common, and teachers have to expect scrutiny of every gesture, every word, everything in the room and on the wall.

    If you say you wish to be left alone, you are suspect–what are you hiding? Piles of uncorrected homework? Poorly prepared lessons? An idiosyncratic approach that does not align with “best practices”? Or worse? Inappropriate behavior? Lessons that have nothing to do with the standards or (if it exists) curriculum? Ignorance of the subject and of teaching methodology? An out-of-control class? If you wish to be left alone, many assume, there is something wrong.

    But there are good reasons for wanting to be left alone. It can make the teaching more thoughtful. You are not focused on what others might think; you are focused on what you are doing. You may indeed have a style that differs from the norm, and that may be one of your greatest strengths. You may need a certain privacy in the room to delve into the subject. I can’t imagine what my favorite classes in high school would have been like if the principal were coming in to do “walk-throughs.” I don’t think I would have liked it, and I think it would have done some harm.

    Now, of course there is a need for openness as well. Of course we run into dangers and problems when everyone has the door closed and is doing something different. And there is much to be said for being willing to show what you are doing and see what others are doing. You can learn a lot that way. It just has to be kept within limits and practiced in a respectful manner.

    So I am not sure I accept the alternatives you propose: to be left alone (but possibly fired at will) vs. to be scrutinized to the last syllable (but with job security). If I had to choose, I’d choose the first, but I’d rather see something in between. There must be a way of basically leaving teachers alone (out of respect, not apathy) but providing some opportunity for principals to see them in action and for them to see each other. Likewise, there must be a form of job security that allows for the swift removal of teachers who truly are not doing their job.

    What would it take to arrive at a reasonable situation?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 27, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  3. To be clear, Diana, I’m not *proposing* these as alternatives. I’m merely suggesting this is where it inevitably leads. If you put enough rubrics, regulations and requirements in place, then you’re a de facto at-will employee: if administration wants to get you, they’ll get you on SOMETHING. And from there, I can’t help but wonder if that’s the point. Is the goal of teacher quality movement to create de facto “at-will” status?

    By contrast, working for a like-minded principal is a safe harbor. He or she will have the same ability to harass, marginalize and “checklist” you to death. But since you are on the same page educationally, it’s less likely to occur. You’re on board with the program.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 27, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  4. I meant “propose” in the sense of “put forth”–sorry for the ambiguity. But thanks for the clarification anyway. I agree that all of this does seem to be pushing toward an “at-will” hiring system. And it brings up a curious paradox.

    The checklisting, mandates, etc. discount the variation in teachers’ styles, personalities, and philosophies. BUT a principal’s style, personality, and philosophy can make it or break it for a teacher.

    So in the name of “data,” in the name of “scientific, research-based” approaches to teaching and teacher evaluation, we end up with a system that sends teachers running in search of like-minded and like-spirited principals. Now, there is much to be said for a school with a philosophy. But the danger is that we’ll have lots of schools with mini-philosophies or petty philosophies, simply because they can fire people who challenge their ideas or whom they don’t understand.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 27, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  5. Fascinating discussion! Diana brings up a very good caution about schools with mini- or petty philosophies.

    We run into this problem again and again. We chafe under an overly-prescriptive accountability policy and raise objections. Lest we seem merely contrarian rather than constructive, we offer a vision of excellence stifled by the current accountability program. Then we have to admit that that vision did not necessarily flourish in the days before accountability. So we offer ideas for turning our inspired thoughts into a system that can benefit more schools. Someone interprets that system as law and imposes it on schools–with accountability measures to ensure fidelity. Teachers chafe under the new, overly-prescriptive system. (And so on.)

    We want inspired teaching rather than compliance. How do we get there? Surely we can’t simply close the doors, and we can’t simply trust school philosophies to sort themselves out. (Or can we?)

    Comment by Claus — August 27, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  6. There is a group of people who always know who teach effectively. They are capable of distinguishing between the popular and the effective teachers. I should think some psychologists could devise focus group discussions or interview schedules to collect their information. But I never hear this mentioned.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — August 27, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  7. I think you nailed it, Claus, by saying “we want inspired teaching rather than compliance.” But I think the soul of the accountability push has been to say (and it’s arguably a fair thing to say) “let’s start with compliance and build from there.” Inspired teaching is an article of faith; compliance is measurable. You can point to it and say “it looks like this.” Given the choice between what we believe in and cannot measure, or what we can measure but do not believe in, we always choose the latter.

    I had an email exchage with a well-regarded figure in ed reform the other day on the subject of Race to the Top funding and forcing states to tie test scores to teachers in order to get the money. I’m concerned that by putting all of our eggs in the test-based, teacher quality basket, we’re making it impossible — literally not possible — to invest in the slow, steady buildup of background knowledge in early elementary school that pays dividends over time, but won’t show up on test scores until 4th grade or later. As a nation, I argued, we have decided we’d rather have a little measurable progress every year, even if it means completely giving up the major win we might have in terms of reading comprehension, critical thinking and college readiness, a few years down the road.

    His response was to acknowledge a “painful tradeoff.” It’s more important to get rid of bad teachers, even by imperfect measures. And, he said, it’s better than the old system under which actual student learning was rarely taken seriously and there was no accountability.

    I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not sure I can muster a cogent response, either. (And public education has long since lost the good will that would allow it to operate on faith) But it’s exactly what we’re seeing with teacher quality. We risk sacrificing excellence for the sake of predictability. Is the damage done by bad teachers worse than the good *not done* by great teachers forced to work by checklist?

    Our policy has answered that question in the affirmative. We may not believe it, but it’s a safe, politically feasible choice.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 27, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  8. Robert hit the nail on the head: “We risk sacrificing excellence for the sake of predictability.” Who has seen a proposal — at any level of education “reform” (building, professional organization, nation) that actively promotes progress among those who can reach highest?

    We sure have enough programs/proposals that are designed to keep teachers from failing to get to the bottom rung…and plenty of those, sadly, have the side effect (unintended, I hope) of holding down the most able, maybe even keeping some of them from entering the profession at all.

    “Standardization” can be and will be both a raising up and a keeping down, unless it’s managed with great intelligence and sensitivity.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 27, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  9. Great discussion. If the question is evaluation by THAT 200 page documentation versus “at will employment” this issue is whether you want public education to go out with a whimper or a bang. I can’t visualize a system where education could survive as an at-will process. But many of the “reformers” seek evaluations by VAMs that have little or no validity. If you have to show “just cause” to terminate, but you allow one side to fabricate its evidence, then you have no more that at will employment.

    I don’t want to be pedantic and quote our Founding Fathers too much, but they had answers for these questions. Education, like Democracy, requires eternal vigilance. A educator who would trade his due process rights for short-term gain does not understand the values of education. Maybe a few teachers will get lucky and have a trustworthy principal for their entire career, so they cut their own deal, abandoning loyalty and obligations to the profession. Or they could help undercut collective bargaining rendering themselves helpless when leadership changes. Regardless, by giving away due process, you give away the power to defend your students against any and all future destructive policies. How could any teacher do that?

    Just as we need balance of powers as protection against the dynamic of “power corrupts and absolute power …” the lack of power is corrupting also. Its is the lack of power that has created education’s “culture of compliance.”

    Like people who would trade their liberty for security, people who would trade their dignity for security want something that never was and never will be. Roll over and show your juglar, and there will always be a bully to be emboldened. Like educational leaders, education fashions change. Teachers have a responsibility to protect “the Great Chain” of learning. We have the duty to defend the rape of our profession by “reformers” who know the price of performance numbers but not the value of learning and who would chop up the liberal arts into “measurable” pieces for temporary political advantage.

    Comment by john thompson — August 27, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

  10. Hi Robert,

    Trying to see where you’re ending up. When you laud the private sector model of good manager hires people and gets out of the way, do you mean -

    1. You want the good manager to fire the teachers that, in his opinion, are not good
    2. You want the principal out of the way of bad teachers too

    I’m guessing #1 but I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

    Comment by GGW — August 27, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  11. I’m a regular reader of your blog and website because of a personal interest in education. I work as a science teacher and I have two kids in a public elementary school. From my experience as a parent, teacher and reader of education news, I am tempted to think that the emphasis on “teacher quality” evades/ignores what I perceive to be the root problem for many public schools – lack of a content-rich curriculum. The most comfy and brightly colored classroom, the nicest teacher, the best instructor of “reading strategies”, cannot make up for little to no content. In my school district teachers are not allowed to drill multiplication facts. Parents receive a letter stating that you “may” want to help your children memorize math facts in third grade with clear indications that this will not happen at school. There is no history taught until 4th grade and it is only about a few Native American tribes. Some colonial history is touched upon in 5th grade. Science is a joke. The “curriculum” is mostly crafts before 4th grade. The only thing my kids’ school has taught them is French (its a French immersion public school), but I have taught them world history, cursive, animal classification, reading (in order for them to be at or higher than grade level), parts of speech, and vocabulary. I can’t forget math – I spend all summer in review because the math curriculum is sped through like there’s no tomorrow – switching subjects from one day to the next. Basic skills are glossed over so that kids can focus on problem solving strategies. I still can’t fathom how one solves a problem without basic math skills, but apparently the math gurus in the education department have faith in this strategy.

    It just seems to me (as someone outside the educational research community) that teaching strategies and skills cannot overcome the lack of knowledge. My kids have had some really excellent teachers in the sense of great looking classrooms, friendly and dedicated attitudes, good communication with parents, etc. BUT, they still don’t learn much of anything!

    To be fair to this school – the French instruction is excellent and my kids speak quite fluently and with perfect accents. Regardless, the teachers are still required to teach the county curriculum.

    Comment by Gina — August 27, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  12. Let parents and students evaluate teachers!

    Comment by TFT — August 27, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  13. As Paul Tsongas said, GGW, that’s a very interesting question. Let me try to evade it.

    The truth is I simply don’t know. On the one hand, I “served at the pleasure” in every job I ever had pre-teaching, so the idea of working for the boss and towing the line is not foreign and doesn’t intrinsically trouble me. If I had to choose between evaluation by checklist and having no control over how I work, or aligning myself with a principal who liked my approach and left me alone, I’d take the latter. But I’m mindful of John Thompson’s point, too. Inner city schools in particular are not known for long-term, steady leadership. So the principal who hired you and supports you might be gone in a heartbeat. The pressure-cooker environment can turn a school into a bit of a snake pit, and we’ve all seen last year’s fair-haired girl become this year’s pariah when fingers start getting pointed.

    My larger concern is that I’m not sure I see the value in putting all our eggs in the teacher quality basket. There’s no reason to believe that for every lousy teacher we get rid of, a superstar is ready to take over. We’d get further trying to make mediocre teachers effective.

    Toward that end, Gina’s comment resonates. Forgive me for deviating from the ed reform hymnal–I’m no apologist for lousy teachers–but if you gave me a magic wand to waive at problems in education, I wouldn’t even aim it at teachers first. In fact, teachers might not even make the top five. I’d fix curriculum, disruption, parenting and ed schools before I’d even consider teachers.

    But we won’t fix curriculum, we refuse to fix disruption, we can’t fix ed schools and we’re labeled excuse makers if we even suggest fixing parenting. So what’s left? Teachers.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 27, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  14. The last few posts both in this discussions and elsewhere on he blog have me wondering. The accountability movement looking to find evidence to remove poor teachers. Who is going to teach in place of the poor teachers?

    It seems the accountability movement (and many of us in education) makes a major flawed assumption: that there is a pool of quality teachers sitting in the bullpen just waiting to teach. We tend to frame the discussion as if our choice is good teacher or bad teacher, but more often it is bad teacher or no teacher.

    Comment by Matt — August 27, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

  15. Follwoing up on Robert’s point, improving teacher quality is very important. But it is only one factor, and its not the most important. To take a common estimate, schools and class contribute 21% to learning differences. Teacher quality, or so I read, contributes 8%. Only 5% of so of teacher quality is measurable.

    We’d get much more bang for the buck if we’d cross examine each other, as in higher ed, and make fewer mindless mistakes. Candidates #1 and #2 could be either the 200 page Rhee evaluation document or VAMs for evaluation purposes.

    Comment by john thompson — August 27, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

  16. Matt, I agree with you. Few humans can do the job to the specifications of these gung-ho education leaders. I mean, hit all the boxes on the Procrustean checklist? That alone is well-nigh impossible. But to do that AND bond with the kids AND make them excited about learning AND stay on top of the myriad ancillary chores of teaching (calling parents, updating TeacherWeb, etc., etc.) AND do your own laundry (since the salary doesn’t allow for expensive time-saving services that execs and doctors can afford)? The job description calls for a charming, erudite genius with the organizational skills of a champion secretary.

    Comment by Ben F — August 28, 2009 @ 12:46 am

  17. “Would you rather be judged by a 200-page list of indicators of highly skilled teaching, or by a principal who shares your philosophy of teaching and learning, supports your approach and pretty much leaves you alone–but has the power to fire you at will?”

    Well, from my perspective the first two alternatives involve too much BS, both from different angels. I’m going to offer a third choice. I’d rather have my kids tested at the beginning and end of the year to determine whether I have been responsible for any value added to their learning.

    Ya, I know the cynics are going to come out of the woodwork for even suggesting something so bizarre. What happens if I get all the LD kids or all the discipline problems? To my way of thinking this is one place where I’d favor the local teacher union stepping in to ensure this does not happen.

    Frankly, I can’t help but wonder, what teacher worth a dime would shy away from such a system and what parent would want to place their child in a classroom where the teacher was reluctant to be viewed on such a quantitative basis?

    Come on, let’s have at it.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 28, 2009 @ 6:24 am

  18. One of the issues here is the tacit assumption that the endgame of observations is to remove incompetent teachers from the classroom. Given what a number of commenters have observed–we don’t have a ready reserve of stars waiting to replace the broken bats–I wonder if it doesn’t makee more sense to view observations as a part a personal professional development plan. If a teacher is truly incompetent, it’s highly unlikely that’s going to be revealed through an observation, or come as a surprise. There should–there are–other mechanisms to counsel that person out.

    In the private sector, I had annual reviews that preceded bonuses. Since I did not work in a revenue-generating capacity, my performance reviews and bonuses were predicated on stategic and qualitative goals and evaluated by management. I was well treated, but more to the point, the process typicallly included not only an evaluation of the previous year’s goals, but the setting of goals for the coming year. There was clarity on my perceived strengths and weaknesses and a plan for improvement. It wasn’t oppositional or adversarial.

    And critically, my performance pay was based on my meeeting my individual goals AND the business meeting its financial goals. I had a stake in the company’s overall success, not just my own performance.

    In sum, I’m making a modest proposal: use teacher observations for professional development, not as a form of evaluation.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 28, 2009 @ 8:03 am

  19. Robert,

    For a “professional development plan” to work, it has to be based on a sound idea of what good teaching is. So we come around full circle. No checklist or rubric can compensate for lack of wisdom.

    New York City teachers are currently evaluated according to the “Continuum of Teacher Development,” a rubric filled with jargon about encouraging “initiative, autonomy, and choice” in the little ones, etc. The higher the level on the rubric, the more obscure the jargon is.

    This rubric is used not only for evaluations (e.g., in Quality Reviews, but also for teachers’ professional development plans. They are supposed to set goals for themselves according to the terms of the rubric.

    And suppose your school believes that “good teachers” cover their walls with “print-rich” material that they have written out themselves on chart paper, and you think that stuff distracts and dizzies and takes time that should be going into the lessons, what then?

    And Paul, I am all for your “value-added” idea if the students are actually tested on what they have learned. If I were teaching Latin, I’d expect my students to learn a decent amount of Latin over the course of the year. Is it fair to be judged on the ones who didn’t put the effort into it? No. But everyone in the class who puts in the basic effort should be learning.

    If I were taking violin lessons and not practicing, should my teacher be rated on my performance? Certainly not. If I were practicing but had very little musical ability, should my teacher be rated on my performance? No. But if all of a teacher’s students completed a year without learning how to hold the bow properly or finger a simple scale, then something is wrong.

    But our state tests are amorphous. They don’t really test how much a student has learned anyway. For ELA, you need to learn a few concepts and be able to read predictable texts at an extremely low level, and that’s it. If you can write a few sentences that invoke “text-based details,” you’re good. On the other hand, it’s easy to lose points for something silly.

    So for any system of testing or professional development to be viable, we have to be teaching something specific. We have to know why we teach what we do in the way that we do. We have to understand what teaching is. And we have to distinguish important details from minutiae, and nonsense from essence.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 28, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  20. Just in case there was any misunderstanding, by evade, I meant the media’s obsession with teacher quality over other schooling issues; I did not mean to insinuate that Robert, or other CK blog contributers, were evading the “root of the problem.”

    I have no personal experience with any of the core knowledge schools. My understanding is that a few are public (charters?). I was pondering, are those teachers above average in comparison to other public school teachers? If a core knowledge public school presents higher test scores than the regular public school down the street is it because of teacher quality or the content rich curriculum? Both maybe? I’m just curious if you took any of the proposed evaluation systems and measured the teachers in both school systems, what the results would be.

    In order to find out which teacher quality evaluation system works best, wouldn’t it make sense to evaluate teachers working in a variety of circumstances (such as different curricula), and then compare the scores of the teachers to the test scores of the students? Then we could see if teacher quality, for that particular test, corresponded with better test scores. I’m probably over-simplifying, and I don’t have experience in educational research, but this just seems straight forward to me. Feel free to enlighten me if I’m way off base!

    If you don’t mind another anecdote…I worked for a bit in a local Catholic school. From my observations, the teachers that I worked with were fairly average and frankly the presentation of the curriculum was miserably boring. The building is old and the classroom decorations were definitely average and could not overcome the drabness of the walls. However, the kids are receiving a strong content rich curriculum. Test scores are strong at the school. The kids know elementary American history; they are taught grammar and vocabulary, and they read classical children’s literature. While I think the teachers could use a serious shot of creativity, I’ll take their way over what I see in the county curriculum any day.

    Comment by Gina — August 28, 2009 @ 9:30 am

  21. An additional thought–isn’t there some way to shake some of the nonsense out of the system? Isn’t there some way to have a national dialogue about some of the fads–an “anti-fad conference” or something, attended by teachers, policymakers, parents, principals, and interested members of the public? We would probably not arrive at a common philosophy of education across the country, nor is that necessarily desirable–but surely we could sort some things out.

    I recognize that wisdom isn’t easy to come by, but the way we are going about it, we are driving it away. We are encouraging and even applauding high turnover in the schools. We are constricting schools with mandates that drive good teachers away–away from the field altogether, or in search of compatible schools. Then, even if a teacher does find a compatible school, the school may be subject to drastic change, as others have pointed out. The principal may leave. The new principal may not like the way things have been done.

    So isn’t there a way to arrive at a basic philosophy that could guide us–even something as simple as the idea that the seating arrangement is less important than the content of the lesson, and the former should serve the latter and not vice versa? And Robert’s point that a solid curriculum may show its effects over the longer term, not the shorter term? It seems if we had a few sound principles, much of the rest could fall into place.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 28, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  22. Diana,

    You state, “Is it fair to be judged on the ones who didn’t put the effort into it? No. But everyone in the class who puts in the basic effort should be learning.”

    I’ve always believed part of a teacher’s job/responsibility is to stimulate their kids into wanting to learn, or as a past professor from Teachers College used to insist via Alfred North Whitehead’s work, teachers need to be able to ROMANCE their kids into wanting to learn. I always believed this to be true. There are plenty of teachers who are good at presenting a lesson but there’s more to teaching than pedagogy. There’s psychology, or more specifically child pysch, which is tantamount to being able to “reach” your students. What makes each kid tick takes a little while to figure out but is very important in terms of being able to motivate them to want to learn, to work hard, to behave, to be persistent learners who apply themselves especially when the lesson is challenging. This makes motivation and encouragement keys to have a successful year with your class, especially a successful academic year.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 28, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  23. I agree with Gina. I don’t think you are in GA, but the curriculum here is a joke. I heavily supplement my kids using the Core Knowledge books. I think the push to hold teachers accountable is a way to pass the blame – it must be bad teachers. Goverment, parents and others ignore the adminstation heavy central offices and weak curriculum. GA seems in a rush to adopt every education fad every mentioned.
    I hear negative talk regarding charter schools, but those that are teaching traditional methods continue to out perform.

    Comment by CB — August 28, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  24. Paul,

    There is something to be said for the attitude, “This is the subject, it is wonderful, now learn it.” The students sense that the teacher has full confidence in the importance of the subject. Sometimes the fewer the efforts to “reach” the students, the more likely they are to try to learn.

    Now, some of this depends on the students’ ages, personalities, and other factors. And even if a teacher is not overtly reaching out to each student, he or she should give thought to each one. The thought will show obliquely. But when you make it too obvious that you are bending over backwards to get them interested, they lose confidence that you are in authority, that the subject is inherently interesting, and that they can do well.

    The “teacher-facilitator” has become a sort of waitress. Let her be a sage on the stage! Let her stand in front of the room, chalk in hand, and teach a terrific lesson! Let the kids strain to learn it! The effort will do them good.

    (I exaggerate a little, but I am not joking.)

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 28, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  25. Well-said, Diana!

    Comment by Ben F — August 28, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  26. No one wants to address the value-added proposal as an alternative route to evaluating teachers? It could be coming to a school district near you – soon.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 29, 2009 @ 9:26 am

  27. I addressed VA in a previous post. At the risk of being dour, I think it’s the worst possible thing for elementary education. Not because I’m accountability-averse (I’m not) but rather because it actively undermines what young children need. The slow, steady buildup of background knowledge needed to make comprehension take root in the later grades may not show up on standardized tests for several years. But it’s critically important. while I’m not an assessment expert, it seems quite likely that one can do everything right in the early grades with little or nothing to show for it that year. But if you need to justify your performance on value added tests, you’ll probably do what’s expedient–reading strategies, test prep, etc.–instead of what’s best for children.

    I don’t think I’m painting with too broad a brush in suggesting that we are so determined to root out to bad teacher bogeyman that we have adopted a policy that trades small short term gains each year for long term success. Given the choice between what we can measure and what is best, we have chosen what we can measure. Again.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 29, 2009 @ 9:53 am

  28. “The slow, steady buildup of background knowledge needed to make comprehension take root in the later grades may not show up on standardized tests for several years.”

    I agree with you, Robert, though I can’t claim any experience in elementary education to back up my opinion. I totally agree that background knowledge is very important. But I think there is more to it also. Let me change your sentence just a bit.

    The slow, steady buildup of mental habits need to make comprehension take root in the later grades may never show up on standardized tests. Indeed mental habits are hard to define, hard to detect, and impossible to measure, but mental habits are very important.

    What do I mean by mental habits? I’m afraid I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

    And I wonder if “background knowledge” doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Some knowledge may be termed “structural knowledge”. It forms a basic structure of a subject and supports a lot of other knowledge that then has a place to attach. If this structural knowledge of a subject is not firmly established, then other knowledge may be learned only momentarily and imperfectly. It is commonly acknowledged that we learn by attaching the new information to the old. If we have a rickety structure of a subject then there is no “old” on to which to attach the new.

    All of this fits into the “sponge” idea. You have to put a lot into a sponge before anything starts to come out. This sponge idea is very applicable to parenting as well as to teaching. Of course it’s not a precise idea. How much must go into a child’s brain before something can come out? How do we know anything is happening inside that brain? How do we know what to put in if nothing’s going to come out for a long time? I don’t know. But it seems foolish to me to disregard this sponge idea, to expect that everything that goes in must result immediately in measurable output. And I think it is very unfair to teachers.

    The “value added” concept, I think, is very valuable, but it has very serious limitations.

    I keep going back to the parental model of education. Within very broad limitations we leave parents alone. We can do that because, with few exceptions, their intentions are good and micromanagement is counterproductive. I think a lot of that is also true of teaching.

    Comment by Brian Rude — August 29, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  29. “The slow, steady buildup of background knowledge needed to make comprehension take root in the later grades may not show up on standardized tests for several years.”

    But Robert, I believe that’s why these kinds of assessments are necessary at the elementary level. There’s a great deal that can and should be measured in the first five to six years of school. And even though they’re only young children most are more than aware that they’re not there marking time. There in school to learn a specific body of knowledge that will adequately prepare them for their later years in school. If a youngster is not reading by the end of second grade that needs to be addressed (Los Angeles Times, “Reading By Nine”). The same holds true for mathematics and English. There absolutely is measurable ‘stuff’ that educators need to pay attention to so kids are not allowed to slip through the cracks. God forbid, if there’s a teacher out there not imparting this foundation knowledge something needs to be done to address the situation. It cannot be ignored.

    As I’ve stated before, these assessments should be used first and foremost for improvement of instruction. Teachers not getting this knowledge across should be guided through the appropriate professional development necessary to remedy their practice. If a state or a district decides to reward teachers on top of that for their (better) efforts, that’s fine too. I agree with Obama/Duncan and their RTTT program.

    Did you read the editorial in today’s NYTimes regarding accountability? It substantiates for me the Obama/Duncan agenda.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 29, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  30. OK, Paul, you’ve lost me. If the 4th grade fall-off is attributed in some significant way to a lack of background knowledge, and it’s hard to test for it K-3, what exactly are you proposing a early elementary reading test look like? I taught 5th grade in what was at the time the lowest scoring school in the lowest scoring district in NYC. Every single one of my kids could decode. What they couldn’t do was comprehend what they were reading. They were very specifically NOT getting a specific body of knowledge, and the tests weren’t designed to capture it, even if they were.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 29, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  31. All kids need to take a Gates-McGinitie (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) reading test by the end of grade two to determine if their reading is where it should be. There’s a comparable test for elementary school math (name evades me) as well. It is NOT difficult to test for K-3. In fact, it’s imperative we find out early if kids are not learning so remediation can take place before it’s too late.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 30, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

  32. Interesting discussion, but it hasn’t really delved into the nature of checklists themselves. Observation tools can be useful instruments without becoming ends in and of themselves. They focus the observer, in this case, principal or other school leaders, on common domains, which ensures some consistency in observations across teachers. These tools can include different types of items: descriptive and evaluative. Descriptive items are generally binary, e.g., lesson plan with objectives, aim posted on board, student work posted on wall, etc. I find these types of items can sometimes be interesting, but not terribly helpful in evaluating the quality of teachers for the reasons mentioned: teachers game the system by presenting indicators that don’t necessarily indicate quality instruction and learning. It’s the evaluative items that haven’t been addressed in this conversation: what is the rigor of instruction, is questioning challenging student to develop higher order thinking skills, are student cognitively engaged in learning, do teachers adequately check for understanding and assess learning, etc. Effective school leaders can use these types of questions to delve deeply into the quality of their teachers’ instruction, and using a checklist is not the real issue. Rather, the professional judgment of school leaders is the issue, and their ability to focus it on teachers’ development and evaluation. Effective supervision will use some sort of diagnostic to assess teachers strengths and weaknesses, provide feedback and professional development opportunities to help teachers improve, and then evaluate progress. Hiring good teachers and let them alone within their classroom might be effective in some settings, but not likely in a diverse school where at least collaboration among teachers is required to reinforce learning across teachers and the curriculum.

    Comment by Gideon — August 30, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

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