Why this teacher chose to take early retirement, Part II: Jeffco school board protests and (of course!) two books

If you pay much attention to my posts on Facebook, you’ll probably have noticed that I’ve been somewhat (ok, very) riled up about the actions of the current Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education.  While I have never taught in Jeffco, both of my children attended K-12 Jeffco schools, and I was always pleased with the quality of their teachers and their educations.   I’m not going to go through the whole laundry list of complaints about this board, referring readers who wish to know about the controversy to the New York Times(!): (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/us/in-colorado-a-student-counterprotest-to-an-anti-protest-curriculum.html?_r=0) and this local summary: (http://jeffcoschoolboardwatch.org/?p=2359).

What I am most concerned about is the assault on teachers that this new “reform” board has initiated.  If you read my early summer post about why I retired you will know that there are a number of issues that contributed to that decision.  Teaching is relentlessly challenging and often almost impossible, and that is without the outright hostility of our superiors.  I have many friends who teach in Jeffco, and they feel devalued and demoralized by recent developments.  When this board blames student protests of a possible curriculum review committee on the teachers and their union “thugs”, that is insulting, but what many are more upset about is the latest move to base pay raises on last year’s evaluations, a move that even an independent arbitrator found questionable because of problems in the evaluation system.  In fact, the new Colorado evaluation process – one that bases half of a teacher’s total evaluation on test scores – was a big factor in my retirement decision.  I am going to use this post to explore the issue of evaluations more closely, while also weaving in two books that I just finished reading.

First, I’d like to say a bit about my personal experience with evaluations.  For most of my career, they were meaningless.  And not, despite reformers cries to the contrary, because tenure and teacher’s unions make it impossible to fire incompetent teachers, thereby rendering their evaluations meaningless. No, it’s because while my evaluations were overwhelmingly laudatory, and often the only positive feedback I got from my “bosses”, they made absolutely no difference in how I taught.   The evaluations were meaningless because often they were done by administrators who either had too little time to do them effectively, or because they were done by administrators who had no idea what they were actually observing and evaluating.  Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I worked with many outstanding administrators throughout my career, professionals who genuinely wanted to help and support teachers and who had sufficient experience in the classroom to actually be able to do that.  But I also worked with administrators who had gone into administration because they weren’t particularly effective teachers themselves, and some I think were secretly terrified of being in a classroom.  I had evaluations written by administrators who would give me observations of a colleague’s class because they didn’t even know whose class they had been in I had evaluations written by administrators who made up activities and dates because they hadn’t been in my room at all (or very little), but had to turn in something.  My favorite example of a useless evaluation was written by a uniformly disliked woman who didn’t actually have my evaluation finished by the end of the school year, so asked me to come back the next week (during my summer vacation.)  I came back on the day and time indicated, only to have her yell at me as I walked in the front office “I’m not done yet, come back in an hour.” Which, being the people-pleaser I am, I did.  Only to have her put in my permanent record that she wished I would plan better for the last few minutes of class!  Really?  She couldn’t plan to get my evaluation written in a timely manner, but she would object to this about my teaching?  Plus, she clearly had no idea what she was looking at, or she would have noticed that I planned to the very last minute of class, it’s just that the individualized activities (Spanish “chats” and written practice) didn’t entail my standing in front of the room until the bell rang.  I imagine that I might have received only an “effective”, or even “partially effective” rating that year under the current terminology, thus in the new Jeffco pay plan giving me no raise or a small one, whereas in past and future years, with different administrators, I had statements like “Lisa is one of the very best teachers in our school” and “We are lucky to have Lisa” in my evaluations.

I know that many people feel the number one problem in our public schools is incompetent teachers, and that the way to solve that is by firing all the bad ones by way of the evaluation process.  Tenure, they say, only protects the worst teachers.  There’s only one problem with that:  the qualities that make a “good” or “great” teacher seem to always defy codification, and the interpretation of those qualities have everything to do with the particular prejudices of the administrator applying the rubric.   Every single year of my career I worked with colleagues who I would have called, at best, “partially effective.”  But here’s the thing:  it’s very possible those colleagues would have said was the bad teacher, and they would have had parents and administrators who agreed.  THAT is what the Jeffco teachers are protesting.

Since my personal opinions are just that, personal opinions, I read a couple of books this week that had been on my radar for a while.  The first, Building a Better Teacher, by Elizabeth Green (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) examines, according to the rest of the title, “How Teaching Works, and How to Teach It to Everyone”. Green does an excellent job of dissecting the common myth that good teachers are just born that way, and shows how other countries and a few visionaries in the United States have been able to develop teacher evaluation and training that allows even seemingly “partially effective” teachers to learn and refine their craft.  While the book struck me as overly dependent on the charter school approach to teacher training (a movement with which I have serious issues), it does make a very good point:  instead of using teacher evaluation to simply fire the “bad” ones (“bad” usually meaning those teaching students with lower test scores), it is possible, with the time, will, and resources, to help any teacher with a genuine desire to improve to do so.

For literally all of my career, this country has been obsessed with education “reform”.  In Reign of Error:  The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), my hunches and suspicions are codified in an indictment of the various “reforms” that have really only served to segregate schools, doom more students to a narrow and inadequate education revolving around filling in the blanks through standardized test-taking, and demoralized teachers.  For years I have felt that “reform” was, to many on the right and not a few on the left, code for  abolishing public schools as we know them and turning us into a country of private schools funded with public money.  I believe the current Jeffco school board is firmly in the camp of this “corporate reform”.  These words caught my attention, and I think speak to the current controversy in the school district where I live and pay taxes:

If the American public understood that reformers want to privatize their public schools and divert their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would be hard to sell the idea of reform.  If parents understood that reformers want to close down their community schools and require them to go shopping for schools, some far from home, that may or may not accept their children, it would be hard to sell the idea of corporate reform.  If the American public understood that the very concept of education was being disfigured into a mechanism to apply standardized testing and sort their children into data points on a normal curve, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform.  If the American public understood that their children’s teachers will be judged by the same test scores that label their children as worthy or unworthy, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform.  If the American public knew how inaccurate and unreliable these methods are, both for children and for teachers, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform.  (pp. 35-36)

The massive student, parent, and teacher outcry against the current Jeffco board majority make me think that many DO understand what reformers really want.  The sad thing about the situation is that I have absolutely no confidence that the board members involved in this controversy care.

If you are concerned about education, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  If you believe that “No Child Left Behind” testing, privately managed charter schools that funnel public money into the pockets of investors and hedge fund managers, the “Race to the Top” emphasis on test scores as part of teacher evaluations, and the wholesale abolition of tenure and teachers unions are the solution to the supposed education crisis, I recommend this book even more strongly!  Ravitch is a scholar of the history of education, so this book uses a strong grasp of historical facts and current statistics to make her point.  While you may not agree with all her conclusions and suggestions, the evidence she presents is thorough and compelling.  This is a long and thoughtful book that looks carefully at every aspect of “reform” and blows the whistle on many of its assumptions.  Thinking about the current controversies in how the Jeffco school board is undertaking to change a district that many of its parents, students, and community members believed to be more than satisfactory, I found myself bookmarking several of her chapters on teachers, merit pay, and test scores in evaluations.

Here is what Ravitch has to say about “value-added” evaluations, the centerpiece of “Race to the Top”dollars that is based on the private business premise that the test scores of their students show which teachers are competent and which are not.  It is the impetus for the new Colorado evaluations that nudged me out of teaching, and it is a value-added evaluation based pay system that Jeffco teachers are protesting:

Stated as politely as possible, value-added assessment is bad science.  It may even be junk science.  It is inaccurate, unstable, and unreliable.  It may penalize those teachers who are assigned to teach weak student and those who choose to teach children with disabilities, English-language learners, and students with behavioral problems, as well as teachers of gifted students who are already at the top. (p. 113)

Closely allied with value-added assessment is merit pay, the panacea offered by many reformers, including those in the majority on the Jeffco school board.  I was surprised to learn that this is an idea that has been tried repeatedly in this country for almost a century, an idea which has never been successful.  I do understand why it is attractive, but the advocates of this idea fail to grasp a very important point:  schools are not businesses.  Our children are not widgets.  And when you are doing the deeply personal work of educating a child, the definition of “partially effective” or “highly effective” is a moving target.  According t0 Ravitch,

The paradox of merit pay in education is that even if it did work, it would still fail.  The more that teachers and schools are compelled to focus on raising test scores, the more they are likely to narrow the curriculum; the more likely that districts and schools will game the system to inflate scores; the more likely that there will be cheating; the more likely that teachers will seek to avoid low-scoring students.  So, to the extent that schools are promised rewards for raising test scores (and punishments for not raising test scores), the quality of education will suffer…Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies.  Merit pay is faith-based policy.  No matter how many times it fails, its advocates never give up…Their belief in the magical power of money is unbounded.  Their belief in the importance of evidence is not.  (p. 123)

Ravitch presents convincing evidence that our public schools are not the cesspits of incompetence that “reformers” think them to be.  Using clear language and carefully presented statistics, she makes a strong case for the traditional, truly “public” school and the teachers who  -all the rhetoric and hysteria to the contrary- are more often than not working exceptionally hard to educate every one of their students.  I am very grateful that I was able to teach in two such schools.  I ended my career in a district that (usually) valued its teachers, in a school that provided a rich and varied curriculum, with a principal who I truly felt respected my particular skills without trying to fit me into a “one-size-fits-all” model of good teaching.

I definitely chose the right time to retire, for me.  I do miss my students (well, the vast majority of the them.)  I miss the intellectual challenge of interacting with them, and I miss the daily immersion in the language and culture that I love so deeply.  But I don’t miss the types of political posturing that the current Jeffco controversies have brought to the forefront of our dialog on education, and I’m very grateful that I’ll never be subject to an evaluation of my teaching skills that will be designed not to encourage me and help me improve, but to sort me for financial purposes.  Today I received a request from a former student for a letter of recommendation.  In it she writes:  “You . . . gave our class help outside of Spanish, like applying for scholarships and telling us we were more than just numbers, and I appreciate that and think that is a great quality of a teacher”.  This statement means the world to me, truthfully more than many of the formal evaluations I received.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure these are qualities that can be measured on an evaluation that places 50% of the total on…yes…student test score numbers.

I’ll finish this post with another quote from Diane Ravitch.  Hers is a voice that I think speaks to what the majority of Americans really want in their schools:

 Genuine school reform must be built on hope, not fear; on encouragement, not threats, on inspiration, not compulsion; on trust, not carrots and sticks; on belief in the dignity of the human person, not a slavish devotion to data; on support  and mutual respect, not a regime of punishment and blame.  To be lasting, school reform must rely on collaboration and teamwork among students, parents, teachers, principals, administrators, and local communities.  (p. 324)