January 16, 2010

Weingarten, teacher evaluation, and the long haul

I started this entry Tuesday, before the Haiti earthquake, thinking about long-term policy changes. There are a number of students and staff at USF, as well as Tampa-area residents, who are worried about relatives or who are now in mourning. Sometimes the long term pauses while you take care of immediate needs. Well, it doesn't really pause, but most people have a limit on how many things they can focus on at one time. We can multitask, but not hypertask.

As I hope most of us have become aware, our woes are often small in comparison with world events. I've had a few bumps in the road this month, one quite literal: the driver of the gray van behind me Monday morning didn't stop when I did for a yellow light. Thankfully, crumple zones, air bags, seat belts, headrests, and other bits of technology did their job, and two uniformed officers of the Tampa police guided traffic around the immobile vehicles until the wrecker could take them away. My laptop, sitting in the trunk at the time, appears unhurt. I'm unhurt; or, rather, if you tell me I need to see a doctor about my head, I'll tell you to stand in line, and the previous suggestions have not been after an accident. Surviving rear-enders without a scratch makes me grateful for government regulation, for technology, and for people such as the two witnesses who helped steer traffic until the police arrived. After news of the earthquake, I think I can handle the small bumps in life. Look around you and you realize you can and often should suck it up.

One thing I haven't been able to do this week is look closely at the Randi Weingarten speech or much reaction to it. There's been a semi-understandable "hey, she's given a Good Speech before; where are our flying cars?" reaction. But for those who are jaded by a speech, I'd agree a little more if I didn't see so much immediate score-keeping kept about who won on which issue in which city. You either care about and focus on long-term structural changes, or you don't. We're in the middle of an era in which many policymakers believe that a few derived measures from tests are good enough for high-stakes decisions and extending that to personnel decisions. There are going to be districts that make disastrous decisions on how to use student outcome data, in different directions, and districts where both the structure and the practice is uses information appropriately (and yes, does use the information). For the short term, I care a great deal about the disasters. For the long term, I know they'll exist and hope there's enough nudging of things in the right direction. For that long term, Weingarten's speech is right and consistent with AFT national support of local bargaining.

For those who keep scorecards, the battle over the Detroit collective bargaining agreement is important for counting coup. To those who think about the human impact of change, you have to worry about the attempted (and possibly successful) coup inside the Detroit Federation of Teachers. (To those who thought the new Detroit contract was too little, too late, I told you so on the internal union politics.) For those who focus on the long term, Detroit is a blip either way, losing students consistently over the years and one district out of hundreds in Michigan. Quick question: how many so-called "suburban" school districts have more students than Detroit's?

If there is a big picture on teacher personnel issues, there are several issues to pay attention to:

  • Teacher preparation and professional development evaluation. I think Louisiana's approach to evaluating preparatory programs is about at the right scale: uses test data cautiously, and I think appropriately at the program rather than graduate (i.e., teacher) level. Florida is starting something that it claims is similar, but it's on a jerry-built measure (or, rather, Gerry-built measure since I know the person who is at least partly responsible for the measures of growth used here), and because it's incautiously done, I suspect it'll take several years to straighten out the kinds. I am relatively optimistic here.
  • Teacher preparation and professional development structures/curriculum. Here, Arne Duncan, Arthur Levine, NCATE, and TFA/other alt.-entry routes are going to push things in one productive and one disastrous direction. The productive direction may be more time earlier in classrooms with appropriate (scaffolded) support. The unproductive direction is the denigration of psychology and other disciplinary knowledge as "theory." Incidentally, that denigration has been a common pattern within schools and colleges of education for the past 30 years--the same people who are being criticized for their ineffectiveness. My college of education is a sample of 1, but it's the educational psychologists on my floor who are the ones most adamant in the college that there is no research support for learning styles (and Michelle Rhee's district that requires teachers to use something it calls learning styles). And as far as sociologists and historians of education controlling teacher education programs? Ha! Please point to one. If there is pushing of social theory inside programs, my firm prediction (which can be empirically tested!) is that there is either no relationship between respect of disciplinary-based faculty and puffery in the teacher-ed curriculum or a negative relationship. I am cynical here.
  • Teacher preparation and English language learners. There are major problems here. Unfortunately, teaching teachers about the history of immigration is both necessary and insufficient, but the social history (or a watered-down version of it repeated ad nauseam) tends to be the focus of many professional development structures that attempt to address ELL problems. Linguistic psychology takes a back seat, and there is too little research on both methods and appropriate assessment. I am in despair right now on this area.
  • It's the baby-boom echo, stupid.  All the cries about teacher shortages with the retirement of baby boomers is ignoring the baby-boom echo, the peak of which is right now passing through college. In a few short years, they'll be the bulge of early workforce participants, and you won't need a high proportion of them to be teachers to fill the empty seats. Oh, yeah, and there are the people in their late 30s and early 40s who can also do so. Apart from spot needs by geography and specialization (esp. science and special education teachers), I don't think that there is going to be a significant teacher shortage. I am optimistic.
  • The mix of evaluation sources. I've written about this before: we have no clue as a society how to mix different sources of evaluating teachers together when each source is incomplete and sometimes severely flawed. For ideological reasons, there are advocates of different varieties of sticking one's head in the sand, either ignoring student outcomes or treating them as infinitely-accurate and -valid measures. The major Gates initiative here might be an oasis or buffer of experimentation in the RTTT era. I am cynical but hope to see something of value, eventually, maybe, filtered through a lot of political spin.
  • Incentives vs. protocols. As John Thompson has pointed out, Atul Gawande's advocacy of protocols (checklists) is an uphill battle in some areas of health care.We see similar resistance in education, sometimes for good reasons (there are some awful protocols in education) and sometimes for bad reasons (see Lisa Delpit's discussion in Other People's Children on the disingenuous criticism of DISTAR for alleged abuse of power relationships). But few have pointed out that there is a conflict between the advocacy of incentives, which assumes that teachers can deliberately choose to act in a way that increases test scores, and the pushing of protocols, which assumes that no matter how well-trained and professional, teachers could use reminders to act in a way that increases student achievement.
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Posted in Education policy on January 16, 2010 5:10 PM |