Falling Leaves and Rising Expectations

By Peggy Wuenstel — The leaves are starting to fall in my yard, and will soon require that I pay the piper for the beautiful deep shade, verdant views, and lower air conditioning bills that having mature trees provides.

Every autumn this coincides with the busyness of a teacher’s life. I wonder each year, if this is when I will hire a neighborhood kid to gather the ever increasing amount of foliage that covers the grass. I am also struck by the difficulty in determining how to compensate the person that might do this job for us. How would I know if the task was finished? How would I know how good a job was done?  Would I pay by the hours worked, the number of bags filled, the relative clearing of the yard? Would I feel the need to supervise the process, or would the results observed when I returned home from running errands suffice? Will I be better served in measuring successful completion of a task like raking leaves by assessing how much, how fast, how well, or a combination of all of these things?

I also have been spending time reading Dr. Tony Ever’s State of the State of Education address, with particular attention to the portions that talked about evaluation systems that will soon be implemented for students, for teachers, for schools, and for school districts. I was struck by the parallels that can be observed between these very important concepts and the perennial task of gathering the leaves. It is especially critical because of the linking of teacher compensation to these same evaluations.

As teachers, under most current salary schedules, we are paid for days worked, with years of experience and continuing education credits earned positively affecting these base salaries.  Changes are coming in the era of new teacher evaluation systems that will incorporate student test scores and other performance measures that may be beyond even the most effective teacher’s control. Merit pay is far too simple a term for this concept.

There are a myriad of variables that make up any classroom environment. Class sizes vary from district to district. Poverty levels differ markedly from town to town. Parental involvement ranges from intense through supportive, to non-existent and counterproductive. Our most capable educators are regularly asked to welcome the most challenged students in any school setting, those with special education needs, medical fragility, limited English proficiency, limited background knowledge, challenging behaviors, or a transient or homeless family history. Despite the business theorists’ best efforts to convince us  that the teacher is just an interchangeable part, that can be placed in front of any classroom with equal effectiveness, anyone who has spend anything beyond cursory time in a school setting knows that this is simply not true.

Even veteran educators who have spent decades in front of a classroom know that they face a different set of challenges and assets each year. Demographics change, curriculum is tweaked, and political pressures are brought to bear. New assessments are designed and administered, data is analyzed, and interventions are planned. Teachers must create an environment where student needs are met by available resources. Not only are we not all doing the same job in any given year, no educator I know does the same job two years in a row.  We aren’t all raking the same yard. Some are as smooth and even as a golf green. Some are bumpy and filled with the kinds of holes that result in twisted ankles and broken bones. Some cover acres and acres and some are the size of the proverbial postage stamp. Some have a few leaves to gather, bag and discard. Others are faced with knee deep seas of crunchy debris. What is absolutely clear is that, from classroom to classroom, from year to year, none of us are doing the same job.

Measurement in education in education is critically important, and when used effectively it helps to assure that every student gets what they need to succeed and every teacher possesses the information to design effective education plans. It is essential in correcting our missteps, redirecting our efforts, and allocating our resources. But measurement is only a small segment of evaluating the effectiveness, the impact, the essential nature of education. The leaves that fall must be gathered, the previous year’s chaff cleared away. New things grow and large limbs sometimes fall to the ground, potentially doing damage in their wake. Albert Einstein reminds us that “Not everything that counts can be measured counts and not everything that can be measured counts.” Nowhere is this truer than in the education of our children. Multiple messages are coming in and not all of them of equal value, and just because they can be reduced to a digestible formula does not mean that the data tells us what we need to know. There is a wealth of research that reminds us that we perceive negative messages more intensely and their effects are longer lasting than those of positive input. We are at a critical moment in determining how we will use evaluation data to measure, support and compensate teachers. I hope we use the tools wisely. Until we can measure compassion, the ability to connect to the lost and lonely, and the creativity that it takes to reach the needs of a diverse group of students, we must acknowledge that we can’t fully measure the impact of an effective teacher. In a few weeks, we’ll be shoveling the sidewalks and these same questions about a job well done will fly with the snowflakes.

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