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OPINION: Teacher Evaluation Plan is Nonsense

Posted May 11, 2012, 05:05 PM HST Updated May 16, 2012, 12:39 PM HST
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DOE image.

Fans of unnecessary document shuffling, prepare to get excited.

In an effort to secure a $75 million “Race to the Top” grant awarded by the federal government, the state Department of Education is hurrying to implement a teacher evaluation program that it promised as part of its grant application, and convince the Hawaii State Teacher’s Association to go along for the ride.

The effort to reform our educational system and implement a performance-based pay scale for teachers is a noble one. The current pay scheme is based in large part on length of service and possession of paper certificates (known as degrees in the academic world), and less on results in the classroom.

Educators should definitely be held accountable for their student’s level of achievement. But beware, for there is a fine line between useful assessment and useless paperwork.

Since the HSTA contract negotiations currently underway are confidential, it’s not possible to know exactly what a performance-based pay system for teachers will look like. But a very good preview is contained in a pilot program being used by the DOE in 18 schools across the state. The program is set to expand to 82 campuses next school year, and is intended in part as proof to their federal masters that the DOE is determined to undertake performance reviews.

The pilot venture has some major flaws. One of which is the program’s in-class observation system for evaluating teachers.

In order for a teacher to score highly during mandatory classroom monitoring sessions, they have to ace the invitingly named “Pilot Classroom Observation Rubric Version 1.0”.

To make this easy, let’s call it “Ruby.”

Ruby expects teachers to enthusiastically praise the content and learning objectives for a course (decided in part by administrators), and convince students that the material they are about to eagerly absorb is critical to their future success.

Unfortunately, textbooks aren’t perfect. In fact many of them are embarrassingly bad, and the very best teachers often spend hours at the copy machine busily generating better learning materials. If the tools provided to teach a class are awful, teachers should have the right to make note of it. Many already feel a moral obligation to replace them, and should be fully supported when trying to do so.

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The same faulty thinking applies to the learning objectives Ruby expects teachers to worship and preach. Sometimes, the requirements set forth by administrators are just silly. For instance, the DOE describes a high performing 5th or 6th grader as one who sets “short and long range learning goals (in pursuit of career choices)”.

If an 11 year old dreams of a career in neurology, that’s awesome. But he or she is more likely focused on more important matters, like lunch.

The guidelines written by administrators often end up turning teachers into part time paper-pushers. There are currently over 24 categories of aptitude measurement for students in grades 1-6 that have nothing to do with actual math or reading skills. Teachers grade students’ non-academic performance, and then submit the ratings to parents via a report card.

Rather than having teachers check off a laundry list of learning objectives from the DOE, a priority should be set on actually teaching. Let educators concentrate on showing kids how to read and do arithmetic, in the best way they can manage. This shouldn’t be hard for observers to score.

For instance, if a science teacher manages to do the near-impossible, and hold at least half of a class’s attention for the better part of an hour, then to hell with Ruby. Put the guidelines in the shredder, and give that teacher a raise.

Sadly, educators are also expected to sing the praises of an “everyone is a winner” approach to learning. To get high marks, they must convince their students that with hard work, every single one of them is capable of completing course objectives.

This means one of two things: Either the teacher is being forced to lie about human nature, or the course objectives are mind-numbingly easy. Ruby is big on student “buy in,” but few things will turn kids off faster than a visibly dishonest instructor, or uselessly easy learning assignments.

The saving grace of this review process is that observation sessions will likely be performed by principles, most of whom have spent a respectable amount of time in a classroom. They know the battlefield well. Hopefully, they will remember their time under the administrative microscope, the insane paperwork imposed upon them, and the miracle that happens when a teacher pushes past all of that nonsense to connect with students.

In the best case scenario, Ruby gets paid lip service. But she’d still cause one hell of a fuss.

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