Evaluating Performance When You Don’t Work With Widgets

31 May

teacherEvaluationChecklistA student is not a widget.  They don’t come down an assembly line, perfect duplicates of each other, and they don’t live in neutral environments, so we can’t approach them all the same way.  Calls to evaluate teachers on their students’ outcomes are problematic because they assume that a strong enough teacher can combat all negative influences–poverty, hunger, lack of school resources, parental education level, etc.  The idea that teachers alone can be the deciding influence on a child’s success–positive or negative–is frankly ridiculous.

At the same time, we want all students to experience a high degree of learning and educational success, despite their disparate backgrounds and personalities.  How do we hold fast to the belief that all students can achieve, but not punish teachers who work with the neediest and most difficult populations?

Ben Spielberg, a math coach in San Jose Unified, suggests we focus on inputs rather than outputs.  Teachers can’t control what their students come to them with, but they can control how they respond.  A teacher’s use of high leverage teaching practices can be observed and evaluated more fairly than whether or not their student scored proficient or advanced on a state test.  Spielberg uses Nate Silver’s example of poker players–they can only control how they play with the cards dealt, not what cards they get–as an example.  A poker players goal is to get the best outcome possible with the hand they are dealt–which doesn’t mean they will automatically win the tournament.

I’d also add that it’s tricky to know what a best teaching practice is.  You can find research to support essentially every kind of teaching there is–whole class direct instruction, small groups, project-based learning, etc.  One study will find that program produced MIRACULOUS results, and the next study will report it being a complete failure.

What most of these studies fail to investigate is the level of proficiency a teacher displays.  For example, the workshop style of teaching, where teachers teach a short lesson and then spend the majority of class time working with small groups or individual students, allows teachers to differentiate for different children and builds in a high level of engagement.  It incorporates assessment, differentiation, direct instruction and modeling–all high leverage teaching practices.  However, workshop done poorly results in a chaotic classroom with low levels of performance and achievement.

Tim Shanahan, a professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Chicago, recommends organizing instruction around learning goals rather than activities, which would be a step towards solving the “what is a best practice?” problem.  Instead of instruction being decided by a specific curriculum or philosophy, it would be decided by what a child needs.  So, for example, if a child needs comprehension work, you might choose a different learning activity than if a child needs decoding practice.

To the outside observer, this might look obvious.  But to a profession that has been inundated with “Fix-it” programs that might design a day like this:

  • 10 minutes of choral reading for fluency
  • 15 minutes of direct vocabulary instruction
  • 5 minutes of phonics review
  • 20 minutes of silent reading

…and so on, the idea that we base what we teach around student needs rather than a group of activities is revolutionary.

This, incidentally, seems like the heart of best teaching practices–using observation and assessment data to determine needs, and then basing your teaching moves on those needs–rather than following a specific program.

So what if we evaluated teachers on their inputs instead of their outputs? In other words, what if we judged people based on what they have control over, versus random variables?  Of course we want to make sure those inputs lead to positive outcomes.  We want to make sure our best teaching practices correlate with student growth.  But I’d like to see teachers graded on what they do, not on what they are given.


One Response to “Evaluating Performance When You Don’t Work With Widgets”

  1. sundaycummins May 31, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    So true. I wrote a book on teaching with informational texts and as I wrote it, I agonized over putting anything down in print because I know that what happens when we work with students is unique to that student and that student’s needs in the moment and in the long run. The best way I could overcome this anxiety was just to reiterate over and over again that we have to observe our students, we have to read and think carefully about their written response, and then we have to respond based on what we learn and we already know well about this student.

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