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?