The Other Shoe of High Stakes Evaluations Just Dropped

shoe_dropBy Nick McDaniels — The other shoe just dropped for me, but we’ll get there in a minute.

Operating under a pay-for-performance structure is not good for morale or working conditions or students. For a teacher, it means waiting with your finger in the dam, holding back the pressure supporting a family, boosting the test scores, managing a classroom, navigating the common core curriculum, attending meetings, joining committees, and, at some point, actually teaching children. Why do teachers take on all of these jobs, many of which used to be handled by central office personnel or department chairs or team leaders (positions which are going the way of the dodo)? They are afraid for their jobs.

The carrot under pay-for-performance is a bigger raise (and the satisfaction of a student succeeding on a test developed at taxpayer expense by multi-national publishing and consulting corporations). There is supposedly a huge stock pile of carrots to be awarded, all so far out of reach that most are discouraged even at the thought of trying. The teachers who actually get the carrot find the taste to be soured by the hours of test-prep and sacrificed family time it took to get a nibble.

The stick under pay-for-performance is devaluation, whereby teachers are told they are not good enough, they are not doing enough, and either need to work much harder or find something else to do.

Most teachers, because we are a bunch who are industrious and eager to please, do their best to achieve the standards set no matter how unreasonable they may be in hopes that an observer or evaluator will note their hard work and reward them for it. But eventually, we will all be exposed. These systems are not set up to make teachers look good anymore than the testing regimes are set up to help students succeed. Eventually, the way the systems are designed, we will be devalued.

And then what?

When you are surviving this new, corrupt system, working as hard as you can, making your raises while those around you are not, and then it stops. You are told you need to work harder, you are not an effective teacher. What do you do?Turnip

You can argue that it is impossible to get blood from a turnip and that you are doing the best that you can under the circumstances (I appreciate you bearing with my vegetable metaphors), but then you realize that the system doesn’t want blood from a turnip, they just want to throw the turnip away, or get the turnip to throw itself away. Then what? What do you do when those good marks stop coming? When you are no longer affirmed in the work that you are doing? When the work that you do, which is incredibly difficult, that you invest so much time and sweat and passion into, is no longer valued?

As I said, the other shoe dropped for me. On Baltimore City’s new Instructional Framework 2.0 there are three categories of good instruction: 1) Plan, 2) Teach, 3) Reflect and Adjust. In the Teach category, there are 9 domains, each domain allowing a rating of 1 (Ineffective), 2 (Developing), 3 (Effective), or 4 (Highly Effective) (think Charlotte Danielson model).

Recently, I was formally observed. The lesson was good. My students did the best they could to make me look good. I love these kids. My rating: Domains 1,2,4,5,6,8,9 – (2) Developing. Domains 3,7 – (3) Effective. Not good at all.

Here’s the kicker: the ratings, under the framework, are totally fair. The observer was thorough and thoughtful and followed the procedures well. Here’s the kicker though: I can’t do much better than that lesson. When I shared my results with my kids, they said the same thing. They were angry in inspiring way.

I should note here that my observation is not the same as my evaluation, which determines my salary. This happens at the end of the year and take the observation into account, but also bases my rating on other things (like professional responsibilities). I am not worried that I will not meet the standards for professional responsibilities or the other non-instructional domains because I would meet those standards in any profession. I’m a good employee. However, I am a teacher to teach, and teaching, according to my observation, on one of my best days, is something at which I am not effective.

So what do I do? What do we do, because this will happen to all of us at some point?

Here’s the short checklist:

  1. Prepare yourself, either mentally or through credentials, for a career after teaching in case we are one of the casualties of this war on children and education. I’m finishing my law degree to have something to fall back on in case I’m determined to be unfit to teach.
  2. View devaluation as liberation. The moment you are able to voluntarily (or are told to) pull your finger out of the dam is the moment you no longer have to hold the line for education reform.

This is great for me. At times this year, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, I was watering down my teaching with the reformed curriculum, forcing students not to wrestle with real social issues. I was doing this in hopes of trying to achieve the ideal level of teaching that is expected of me. Having tried, and failed, in fact having regressed apparently, I now feel more comfortable teaching the things that need to be taught.

Will I buck the entire system? No.
Will I still help my kids prepare for tests? Sure.

edreformThey still have to pass them to graduate and I will not stand in the way of that. But I will be much more explicit about my critiques. For every lesson of test prep I do, I will do a lesson critical of testing. Our kids need to know that while the system isn’t good, it is the one we have to live under until we change it. In fact, maybe we as teachers need to know that too.

For all of us who have been devalued or will be devalued. Let’s prepare for the worst, and let’s work for the best. Now is the time for all of us “bad teachers” to stand up and show how bad we really are.

Let’s teach our kids the things they deserve to learn, the things the corporate ed reformers are trying to bury. Let’s liberate them too. Let’s call the bluff. This system is built on the faultiest of notions, that teachers are only in it for the money and will do whatever they are told to do for a raise. The sooner we allow ourselves to be liberated from this structure the sooner we can let the system collapse under its own weight. Let devaluation be our vehicle for liberation. What else do we have to lose? When that other shoe drops for you as it has for me, pick it up, put it on, and march on.

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