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Can D.C. teacher evaluations be too admiring?

I am still receiving emails about my Nov. 23 column on Dan Goldfarb, the first teacher to share with me the results of an evaluation under the new D.C. teacher assessment plan, IMPACT. Goldfarb was not happy with his score, 2.3 out of a possible 4 points. He said the rules forced his evaluator to focus on trivia, like whether he had been--to quote the IMPACT guidelines--“affirming (verbally or in writing) student effort or the connection between hard work and achievement.” He said the evaluator told his principal of his complaints about the program and about D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, violating promised confidentiality.

Goldfarb had legitimate gripes. But his was a tiny sample of this innovative attempt at rating teachers. When I sought evaluations from teachers not so opposed to IMPACT, several said they would send theirs over, but so far only one has done so. That evaluation differed from Goldfarb’s in intriguing ways. The score was almost perfect, 3.92 out of 4. But the analysis seemed to me out of sync with thinking behind this program.

The evaluation was done on Nov. 2. The teacher was John F. Mahoney. He teaches math at the same school where Goldfarb teaches history--Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. The fact that Goldfarb has been at a school that good for several years indicates he is considered a good teacher. Mahoney’s reputation is more obvious. He is one of the most decorated educators in the country, selected to the National Teachers Hall of Fame and holding many awards, including the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award given by this newspaper. The Post reported in 2001 his move from the private Sidwell Friends School to Banneker as an effort ”to help more young people with fewer opportunities.”

It is hard to believe, reading the assessments of Mahoney’s Master Educator evaluator, that the evaluator was not aware of Mahoney’s reputation and influenced by it. “I was a true pleasure observing your class,” the evaluator concluded. “I am inspired by your passion and compassion for teaching and for your students.” But the evaluator asked Mahoney to tell me that she just moved here and had never heard of him before she observed his class.

The evaluator gave him perfect 4s on 12 of the 13 categories covered. The reasons were often clearly stated. Ascertaining his probing for higher understanding with the ninth grade class, the evaluator said “Mr. Mahoney used an effective questioning technique for example: How can you tell this is correct? What would be other points on the line? Students also had to fully explain their process. This is important to bring about meaning to their mathematics and that students are not simply drawing pretty graphs.”

In checking for understanding, Mahoney “asked clarifying questions and had students present their problems to demonstrate understanding. At one point he even reminded a few to sit up straight and re-focus,” the evaluator wrote.

Mahoney’s only flaw was in reinforcing positive behavior, for which he got only 2 points. “This score could be improved if there was reinforcement at strategic times simply by saying ‘thank you (student) for _____.’ The students of ay [sic] age appreciate praise. With these students it would be an effective means to keep them on task and increase engagement,” the evaluator wrote.

That’s fine. Mahoney deserves his high marks. But parts of the evaluation were vague, and I think reflect the view that a teacher this accomplished doesn't need any help. On multiple learning styles, the report said “Mr. Mahoney attempted and effectively targeted three learning styles: visual, kinesthetic and interpersonal,” without giving any examples.

The evaluator told me through Mahoney that she offered more detailed guidance in her post-evaluation conversation with him. If this process is to work, without too many arguments over who said what to whom, I think the evaluators should get the important points down on paper.

I hope more D.C. teachers will share, perhaps as comments to the online version of this column, how their evaluations are going. If the process is designed, as its creators say, to stimulate thoughtful exchanges about pedagogy, it needs to provide as much detail on the best teachers as does on those needing to improve. Just as they do with their students, teachers like Mahoney expect to be evaluated, not admired.


For more from Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle. For all the Post's education coverage, go to http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | January 3, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  D.C. IMPACT program, Dan Goldfarb, John F. Mahoney, admiring evaluators, teacher evaluations  
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Comments

She just moved here.
What is the background of the evaluator?

Posted by: edlharris | January 3, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

This evaluation tool will never do what it is supposed to do. In order to provide specifics about all the behaviors being rated it will take even the most highly trained evaluators so much time that DCPS will need to hire several hundred more administrators. So either the evaluations will become relatively meaningless exercises in completing a checklist or they require so much work that administrators will avoid evaluating staff.

It is one more example of unintended consequences never being considered by education bureaucrats when they unilaterally implement systemic changes.

Posted by: kronberg | January 4, 2010 6:44 AM | Report abuse

Kromberg is right.

Posted by: pittypatt | January 4, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

One of the most difficult aspects of implementing and using a system of evaluation where the goal is to be as objective as possible, is in ensuring that the objective standards and "litmus tests" for rating each category are applied consistently. This requires 1 or 2 things (often both): effective examples and prose that provides clear guidance on how to arrive at a particular rating and a small group of individuals that scrutinize *all* of the evaluations to minimize the impact of aberrant evaluators.

Both are quite difficult, but without them, there will always be significant questions about whether individual teachers benefit or are penalized by particular evaluators.

Posted by: Sneeje | January 4, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Some parts of the Impact rubric are indeed difficult to evaluate in the scope of a 30-minute observation, such as the areas for establishing positive relationships and instilling a desire to succeed. Others, however, are very pertinent to the practice of teaching, such as management, engaging students and asking strategic questions to foster critical thinking (aka "checking for understanding").

The system, like it or not, is here to stay -- and not just in DC. Other districts are chomping at the bit to see how it fares and are more than happy to see Rhee face the challenges of imposing such a system. BUT it should have been piloted here. Subjecting all staff to a work in progress (it was revised in September and will be revised again after this year, according to Jason Kamras) calls into question its fairness. Not everything is Rhee's choice though; the "Race to the Top" money that Obama is currently dangling in front of everyone more or less mandates this type of evaluation system...and not in a couple of years but right now.

As for the background of the evaluator, sadly, if she was from DC she would be accused of bias, so let's file those types of criticisms in the "you can't win" bin.

Posted by: goldgirl96 | January 4, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

The teachers of DC are being treated in such an ignominious and public way that the only "evaluation" question that will be asked in better economic times is "Is this teacher still alive?"

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 4, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

The "Race to the Top", is a "Race to increased Administriviality."

Do we really want to focus our tax dollars on allowing teachers to teach students or on making teachers become better administrators?

Teachers are being forced away form the job of being teachers and focusing more and more on trivial administrative duties.

My girlfriend teaches second grade and has to spend close to 40% of her time assessing individual students outside of the classroom. That is a lot time away from actual instruction.

When she and the other elementary teachers in the district asked how they were going to be able to teach/manage a class and implement all of these new assessments, the Superintendent said quote, "Just put in a video for the students to watch."

Posted by: tazmodious | January 4, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

goldgirl96,
what is the evaluator's experience?

Posted by: edlharris | January 4, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

There's an inherent problem with the evaluation system that non-teachers may not understand. No teacher can do everything. We have to decide what to ignore, when to back off and go around problems, and when to try again. We read body language and make subjective judgements about timing. (I want to move as slowly as possible through the curricula giving time for deep understanding, ignoring pacing guides, and deciding almost solely on the students' receptivity; when the kids show its time to move on, its time to move on) We also have to make continual judgements based on the micro-politics of the school.

Teachers can't mandate policy, especially regarding discipline so we have to roll with the punches; and we have to cover our administrators' rear ends and vica versa. That complex equation determines how high of standards we can hold kids to.

The time of year means everything also. We can't ignore it when the holidays come and domestic conflicts go through the roofs or when gang wars break out.

We all make compromises. I suspect that those of us in neighborhood secondary schools have to make far more. Certainly, we make different compromises.

If we have to meet "all of below" on any checklists, the system will break down or become a joke. Micheal Jordon missed more shots than anyone, and Babe Ruth struck out more than anyone. Its unforced errors that we must eliminate. In fact, reducing unforced errors is the best way to improve performance. If evaluators haven't experienced that, how can they recognize it. So previous points by commenters are well taken.

Posted by: johnt4853 | January 4, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I'm trying to figure out when hard work ceased to be its own reward. Teachers have to thank students every time they give a right answer? And if they don't, they are penalized?

There's positive reinforcement, and then there's expectation management. Thanking a student for every little thing they do diminishes praise. Perhaps Mr. Mahoney understands that.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | January 4, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I think it makes more sense to evaluate teachers on process rather than on student outcomes. In that regard, IMPACT at the very least seems more reasonable than evaluations solely based on test scores, which simply creates teaching geared towards improving test scores, with little substantive learning taking place.

That being said, it is extremely difficult to evaluate teachers. As a former teacher, I think it takes years to master the craft. I think more emphasis should be placed on real, integrated, thorough teacher professional development. And less emphasis should be placed on trying to find a silver bullet. They don't exist.

Posted by: TripLBee | January 4, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

(Originally Posted Today Monday Jan 4 approximately 3:30 am but deleted by Wash Post)

The premise underlying IMPACT: Increasing the rate and degree a teacher engages in specific instructional, management, and leadership skill sets in a classroom setting increases student academic achievement as measured by standardized test results.

Evaluating teachers by student outcomes as measured by longitudinal student data avoids the flaws in IMPACT

Posted by: motherseton | January 4, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

The background/experience of the evaluator is mentioned my Mr. Kamras here:
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2010/01/dc_teacher_evaluation_program.html#more

Mr. Kamras' experience is described here:
http://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/what-is-the-value-of-having-a-superstar-teacher/

Posted by: edlharris | January 4, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I teach in DCPS and received a 3.85 out of 4.0 on my first evaluation. Not bragging, just stating it so readers won't think I'm disgruntled.

First of all, there is nothing in IMPACT which is bad per se. The elements in the Teaching and Learning Framework are all elements which make up good and effective teaching. However, there are some flaws. First of all, IMPACT attempts to make teaching a "cookie cutter" type of instruction. One size does NOT fit all. It is not necessary to cover every element in the evaluation in every single lesson every single day. What teachers are basically doing for the evaluators is putting on a dog-and-pony show when they come.

Second, IMPACT completely removes the human element from instruction--which is no surprise since dealing with people is something Michelle Rhee and her staff are inept at. I know my students and I know what works for them and what doesn't. So if I skip a particular piece that the evaluator is looking for because I know that spending more time on another aspect will be beneficial to my students then that should be my call.

The biggest problem with IMPACT is that it was designed and thrust upon teachers without much teacher input. Rhee claims this is what came out of her discussions with teachers. This is NOT what teachers wanted. Even her new hires--the ones she loves like the Teach for America folks--think IMPACT is ridiculous.

What teachers wanted was more peer review and support without the punitive aspect. No teacher I know is opposed to constructive criticism nor is any teacher that I know unwilling to try new things to become a better instructor.

IMPACT serves one purpose only: that is to make it easier for principals to fire teachers.

When the chaos in DCPS caused by Michelle Rhee finally settles down--if it ever will--then the public will realize that things are pretty much the same. Unfortunately by that time, many lives and careers will have been destroyed by IMPACT and by the wrath of Michelle Rhee.

As long as we have poverty in DC and an urban culture which glorifies violence and gangs and does not value education, then we will have low test scores. We teach but the students have a responsibility to learn. When there are no repercussions then students aren't motivated. For example, students know they can't be held back but only once during their academic career and only in certain grades. So conceivably a student can sit and do nothing all year and still pass. These are the kinds of absurdities which need to be addressed and changed, not vilifying teachers.

IMPACT and Rhee both need to go and something and someone more just and fair need to be put in place. Let teachers be agents of change, not objects of it!

Posted by: UrbanDweller | January 5, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Does any other profession in America come under such a public microscope as teaching? Is any other profession ruled through evaluations by those who have very little or NO experience of actually doing the job? Principals? - fewer than ever have more than 2 - 3 years teaching in a classroom. Most seem to go into administration to get away from the demands of the classroom year after year. Evaluators? - again few have much in the way of classroom creds. They get "special training" to observe and write up others while having little tesching experience.

Would doctors or lawyers put up with this?
Yet the American public seems to be OK with school teachers being paid very little for their college prep and constant continuing study to stay certified. "I'm not teaching for the money" is the awful but true canard. Yet American society and politicians want to entrust the country's future to them while dishing out abuse with low pay and micro-management, all in the public eye.

Teachers must prepare in advance for hours just like doctors and lawyers. Are their results picked through publicly and unfairly like teachers. I don't think so.

And the blame game! We must get rid of "bad teachers" because they must the main reason that our kids "fail"! Ignore all the other many and complex aspects of schooling in America and pick on the one, easy scapegoat. Why do people still want to go into teaching as a profession? Are they masochists? More and more are leaving the profession within 4 to 6 years of starting. A living wage and a lot more respect seem to be the biggest factors.

The teaching profession was hi-jacked several decades ago by those with a political agenda and no knowledge of how school learning really works and what does not.
Why not ask those who really know how learning operates and what succeeds and does not - the experienced classroom teachers. Is this such an alien concept? We ask doctors and lawyers what works best in their professions.

Most of the best comments on these blogs are from teachers. Put their experiences and suggestions on the front page of these news columns and maybe the public will begin to understand.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 5, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

to 1bnthrdntht

As long as thinking up educational "reform" pays so much better than actual education practice this is what we are stuck with.

Posted by: mamoore1 | January 5, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

You provided an excerpt from the IMPACT guidelines, to wit: “affirming (verbally or in writing) student effort or the connection between hard work and achievement.”

Should a teacher be obliged to follow guidelines published by an institution that evidently doesn't know the difference between "verbally" and "orally"?

Posted by: hwinva | January 5, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

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