"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Teacher Performance–Shape Up Or Ship Out

A Superior Court judge in California recently struck down teacher tenure and thus struck a blow against venal, irresponsible unions and provided a long-overdue victory for parents who want and deserve a quality public school education.  The tenure system, the judge ruled, provided a safe haven for underperforming teachers, guaranteed them employment regardless of performance, and perpetuated the antiquated, archaic idea that workers should be insulated from the rigors of the marketplace.

It is hard to understand how the teachers’ unions have been able for so long to resist the inevitable; and they have raised one tattered banner after another, pulled one more stinking red herring out of the barrel, and convinced taxpayers that their profession is so valuable, so sacrosanct, and so inviolable, that only employment in perpetuity is good enough for them.

Performance evaluations – the staple of private industry everywhere – would seem only right and proper for schoolteachers. Just as the performance of employees in both for profit and non-profit companies is reviewed, analyzed, and matched against established standards, that of educators should be similarly assessed.  But no, say teachers unions. Any standards- and performance-based evaluation would ignore the necessary subjectivity out of teaching.  How can one possibly measure the efforts of a caring teacher who goes off-program daily to provide emotional support to a struggling youngster, who builds self-esteem and self-respect, or who successfully arbitrates squabbles and potentially dangerous conflicts on the playground?  Math scores, reading comprehension, and a grasp of historical dates provide only a partial picture.

While there is no doubt that these more subjective skills are harder to measure than quantitative ones, the science of qualitative evaluation has become highly sophisticated. Anything can be measured if appropriate, valid, and reliable criteria are applied, and innovative evaluative methodologies are employed.

Mrs. Jones, the Second Grade teacher at my son’s elementary school, was known for her discipline, and although many parents complained that she was too severe and too harsh in her methods, most applauded her for keeping order and moving her lesson plan along with no interruption.  This being a public school required to take all comers, there were some deep dummies in Mrs. Jones’ class just like everyone else’s from K-6; but Mrs. Jones said, “I will teach and they will learn”.  The best subjective measurement of all was the total silence in her classroom.  A visitor passing the closed doors of the classrooms of Miss Prentice, Mr. Miller, Ms.Ripley, and Janet Biggers heard nothing but nonsense, scraping chairs, and ruckus.  But even with an ear pressed to the door of Mrs. Jones’ room, this visitor would hear nothing but her voice or one-at-a-time children.

Mrs. Jones was not the best teacher in the school.  She had survived her tenure in a Southeast inner-city school by will and authority, not insightful teaching; but the issue, as teachers’ unions point out, is not only education, but caring.  Mrs. Jones cared for her students, so when one of them was shut up in the broom closet, and the class returned to business, every child in the class paid attention.

Does ‘caring’ have measurable parameters?  Of course it does, and an algorithm can easily be written which includes facial gestures, body language, voice tone, and any number of other features of listening, respecting, and offering. Every human activity can be mapped and disaggregated.  In today’s world of big data, supercomputers, and sophisticated analytical software, even the term ‘subjective’ is losing relevance.

Electronic surveillance is, for better or worse, an accepted and integral part of American life.  Cab companies know where their cabbies are, how efficient they respond to calls, how they respond to traffic congestion and how correctly the route their trips.  Supermarkets monitor checkers to see how fast they process each customer relative to the amount of sale and the number of loose rutabagas and bunches of Swill chard are in the order.  Office managers monitor workstation computers to be sure that Georgette in Accounting is not on Facebook; and if she is, she is not posting nasty comments about her supervisor.

Teachers should not be exempt and should be exposed to the same kind of performance monitoring. Once valid and reliable criteria have been established for subjective activities such as caring (as above, facial gestures, tone of voice, etc.) cameras can record every minute of a teacher’s day.  Cameras today are so small and unnoticeable that they can be placed at random in students’ desks, in flower bouquets, bookshelves, and cloakrooms.

Test scores can still be useful evaluative tools, and the same rigor applied by social scientists or bio-statisticians to eliminate bias, can be applied. Teachers have been known to cook test scores to meet what they consider unfair and intrusive No Child Left Behind standards, and uncompromising verification methodologies should be just as ‘intrusive’.

Teachers’ unions in large metropolitan school districts assert that current standards for K-12 are meaningless for the urban jungle.  Teachers in the inner city spend most of their time policing, disciplining, suspending, and expelling students, and do not have the luxury of teachers in good neighborhoods.  They have a point, but they still should be evaluated against locally appropriate criteria.  Discipline and authority should receive the highest marks.  Just keeping anti-social students from dysfunctional families in school should be enough to merit a pay increase.  Racial profiling and discriminatory bias?  Not at all.  Educational standards should be set locally according to local conditions. Once PC hysteria is removed from the equation, establishing realistic performance criteria given the student intake should not be that difficult.  Establishing criteria for such performance and measuring it with direct surveillance methods should not be rocket science either.

Why stop at teachers?  The most underperforming, venal, and self-serving employees in the United States have been hired by us the voters and as Congressmen, Senators, Delegates, and Councilmembers enjoy the sinecures of office.  Throw the bums out; but before we act rashly, assess their performance according to rational, objective, and rigorous criteria.  Is ‘good governance’ so hard to define?

Hospitals still refuse to give details about doctors’ and institutional performance.  How many nosocomial infections per year?  How many hip replacements gone bad? How many gauze strips left in chest cavities?

Lawyers, too, escape the harsh light of objective evaluation.  Even if  District Attorney has lost a relatively high percentage of trials, he might have prosecuted a lot of accused criminals defended by high-profile, high-income defense lawyers.  If a defense attorney loses frequently, it may be only because of causes beyond his control – media frenzy, for example, or political pressure and influence.  Even the most smarmy, disreputable, and borderline unethical behavior can be disaggregated, codified, classified, and used for evaluation.

We could all use a good dose of performance evaluation. We all would be well-served if parents, grandparents, rich uncles, wayward aunts, and especially priests and pastors were evaluated.

Admittedly evaluating priests is a tricky affair.  The ultimate objective of the responsible priest is getting his parishioners to Heaven, and Lord knows, there is no way of determining that.  Yet there are many proxy indicators.  The confessional can be bugged and the rate at which horrible sins are confessed can be tracked.  The number of reprobates who come forward for Jesus and stay clean for at least a year can be monitored.

In conclusion, I have no sympathy whatsoever for teachers who whine and moan about performance evaluations and who insist on the protection of tenure.  Few of the rest of us have any such cover and face the withering fire of the marketplace every day.  This no-holds-barred competition is what makes America great.  Overcoming adversity, winning the race against all odds, succeeding where no one has before is all about character. Teachers need to get with the program.

1 comment:

  1. Nowhere does this blog say anything about the quantitative evaluation of actual topical knowledge. Somewhere along the line, a teacher should be evaluated based on their actual knowledge of the subject matter which they are responsible for teaching. In order for this to happen, it would require evaluation by administrators that have actual knowledge of the subject matter being taught. An English teacher I know holding a PhD in English confessed to me that she was incapable of balancing her own checkbook. She could go on and earn the appropriate administrative degrees and certifications, thereby becoming an administrator responsible for evaluating the classroom performance of a math or science teacher, yet be completely incapable of actually passing the class being evaluated (taught). SO THE VERY SIMPLE QUESTION IS: HOW DOES IGNORANCE EVALUATE CLASSROOM PERFORMANCE REGARDING ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE OF SUBJECT MATERIAL? While I share the goal that it is desirable to evaluate teacher performance in our public schools, I still haven't heard a credible suggestion as to how it might be done or whom might do it. I read what Uncle Guido had to say, yet my simple question remains unanswered. You are going to have to do much better than this in order to convince someone who has significant experience teaching in a public school classroom that you have a meaningful handle on the topic you're discussing. Notice that I didn't say that I thought you were wrong, but rather that you still haven't defined the necessary parameters for success required to achieve the objective.. phil anderson 4drphil4@gmail.com