“If we are all proficient, it’s hard not to be self satisfied.”
Ninety-two percent of Boston teachers can’t be proficient or exemplary. They just can’t be. First, they are unionized. That means they check out long before they stop collecting a paycheck. Most of them didn’t come from an Ivy League school. And most of all, their students’ test scores are far below those of their peers in Wellesley and Wayland.
As the Globe’s James Vaznis
“in a city where thousands of students struggle immensely and in many cases quit school, the large number of teachers receiving high ratings is raising questions about whether principals and other administrators are judging teachers too lightly.”
Gotta love that intransitive raising of questions. You know how questions arise like love on a warm spring day. It’s not like someone somewhere always has a question or a complaint. Even if you have to turn over a few rocks to find them, the questions are out there. And if the rock is big enough, if you’re a charter school founding, Harvard lecturish, Boston school committeeish, Barr Foundation fellowish, education reformyist like Meg Campbell, the teleophone number for your rock is probably on the rolodex where Globe reporters go to find educational questions raised.
“Do we kind of have the equivalent of grade inflation?” she wonders.“If we are all proficient, it’s hard not to be self-satisfied. . . . I do get worried the whole district is 92 percent [proficient or exemplary] when we have so many issues we are facing.”
Linda Noonan from the Massachusetts Business Education Alliance has her doubts too, though evidently those doubts weren’t particularly quotable. BPS administrators defend the process and the results. BTU President Richard Stutman’s response to Campbell’s “questions” comes later in the article, but by then, all those Globe readers get the point. Those sneaky,, last-in-first-out, unionized Boston teachers have somehow dodged the evaluation bullet.
My sources tell me that Gentleman Jim Vaznis ain’t a bad guy. But it’s a hard to be a saint in the city, especially as part of the Fourth Estate. From his article, we know questions were raised, we are told BPS officials “held up as evidence most students are receiving quality instruction.” But what were the circumstances? Evidently, the 5 W’s are following the Globe’s declining bottom line.
Teacher or not, most of us have had an employee evaluation. Exemplary or not, most of us have had the experience of wondering whether our work could be effectively summed up by a list of standards and 4 or 5 levels of competence. All of us have been told that evaluations are supposed to help us improve our performance, not to pass judgment. Evaluations and performance reviews are tools to manage people, not to tell them how much they suck.
Unless you teach in the Boston Public Schools. Then you’re told all that stuff by your administration, and a school committee member, who happens to be a former teacher, published poet, charter school founder, and Harvard graduate and lecturer, very publicly doubts you’re as good as the the administrators say you are. You can’t possibly be that good with all those kids not doing as well as those at Codman Academy. You just can’t. The important people in Boston already know you can’t be that good.
But it makes sense that most BPS teachers are proficient or exemplary. It really does. For a couple of reasons: 1) they are that good 2) the measurement tool is more than likely has eliminated the possibility of a teacher being average. Teachers are either exemplary, proficient, needing improvement, or unsatisfactory. It’s a grading system without C’s. There are A and B teachers or D and E teachers, though most likely, your administrator will tell you that Needs Improvement isn’t a D. This rubric, as we call them in education, isn’t part of an evil plot by teacher unions to corrupt the evaluation system. This 4-level set up has its roots in the MCAS test, which uses the same format. Although teacher evaluation developers were probably just following the status quo on rubric development, the decision for MCAS tests was to eliminate the possibility of “average” because they wanted students to move students toward proficient.
MCAS developers didn’t want students hanging out in the mediocre middle. What message would be sent it the bulk of students were average? That’s how SATs are set up, incidentally. The tests are constructed so almost 70% of students fall in the middle of the bell-shaped curve, the most natural distribution of large numbers of people on things like tests, height, and weight. If MCAS and teacher evaluations were more interested in measurement, rather than passing judgement, they would have more categories. Instead, they are set up to
pass judgment, I mean make an evaluation. The teacher evaluation format sacrifices precision to produce a rating.
Teaching quality, inasmuch as it can be measured, is like weight. Or height. Or test scores. The goal is measurement, but variation is nearly infinite. (The technical term is continuous variable). But no one can reliably use a scale of 100 to evaluate something, never mind a scale based on infinity. Polls use a Likert scale of 5 or 7 for a reason. So a scale must be chosen. Think of a ruler–an evaluation is supposed to be a measurement. Each line on a ruler represents a potential scale. You can measure down to 1/16″ if you so desire. The height of real people actually varies by smaller increments than that. So we only refer to inches when we measure height. I’m 5′ 8,” not 5′ 7 15/16.” With teacher evaluations, it’s like we’re measuring in 6″ increments, and I’m 6′ tall because I’m taller than 5′ 6″. For measurement purposes, it would be better to have an evaluation with more categories, but how would poor Meg Campbell feel if it turned out that 95% of Boston teachers were average?! What would we tell the Boston Globe?
No doubt Boston’s education reformers would complain if all of Boston’s public school teachers were merely average (even if, statistically speaking, most teachers are average). Sure, Boston’s kids deserve better than average teachers. All kids do. But if there were enough above average teachers to go around, they’d all be average teachers. That’s not just a rhetorical flourish, it’s a fact. For better or worse, it’s also one of the reasons being “average” has been abolished. Boston teachers deserve better too. They deserve respect for the job they do. They deserve articles that do justice to the work they do. They deserve school committee members who don’t presume them guilty.