COMMENTARY | An article in Sunday's New York Times described the problems popping up due to new teacher evaluation tools being implemented in schools around the country. A common theme surfaced in many of the examples; In several instances it was clear the teacher was teaching a certain way or incorporating elements into a lesson in spite of the fact that the teacher didn't particularly feel that element needed to be part of his or her goals for that class period.
Principals, too, are having problems. They are being crushed with the paperwork these new evaluation models require, and in many cases they are finding it necessary to grade teachers lower than they would like because they are forced to follow a certain evaluation instrument.
This is happening all across the country. One of the key components of the Race to the Top initiative, which dangled grants to cash-strapped states, was a heavy-handed forcing of school districts to adopt new teacher evaluation tools that focused on "student growth." Wonder why the teacher unions and the state of New York had to battle over a new evaluation instrument? New York was granted $700 million under Race to the Top, and accordingly the state was forced to revise its teacher evaluation measures.
In Illinois, where I teach, laws were passed in record time in an attempt to win Race to the Top money. In January 2010, new state laws made several changes in how teachers and principals would be evaluated and put deadlines on when those changes had to be in place.
I was part of the committee the last time our school adopted a new evaluation instrument. It was not an easy task; our school board had quashed the efforts of the previous committee. This time, though, administrators and teachers hammered out an instrument the board was happy with, and our district adopted it.
Now, it seems, we are going to have to change again. Illinois is considering making "research based" evaluation instruments mandatory for school districts. If that does indeed become law, our school would very likely adopt the Charlotte Danielson model, which has been recommended by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Our principal and assistant principal recently attended training on this model and came back with some alarming information. First, most teachers' ratings would go down under this tool, they were told. Also, to implement this correctly, principals would have to be in a teacher's classroom 8-10 times over the course of a school year.
I have no problem with teachers being held to high standards. All teachers have stories of low-performing colleagues who were not properly evaluated or supervised. Those teachers are not shining examples of what our profession can be. If beginning teachers are given useful, considered feedback and still do not take suggestions for improvement from principals or mentor teachers, then yes, they should probably be let go.
I do, however, have a problem with states imposing mandates with no regard for how districts are going to pay for them. For example, if a school needed 2-3 additional assistant principals (at $100,000 each) to correctly use the Danielson method to evaluate teachers, is the state of Illinois going to write that check? I doubt it. If my English department requested two additional teachers to lower class sizes and better allow us to help poor students meet standards for "growth," will Springfield pay for them? I won't hold my breath.
Teacher evaluation is currently a big buzzword in education. Many, from President Obama and Arne Duncan to state legislatures on down to local school boards, are weighing in with their opinions and suggestions. To cynics, Race to the Top became Race to Pass New Laws So We Can Show The Voters How Important Education Is To Us.
With apologies to Ms. Danielson, whose model is, I'm sure, very good, I remain skeptical that one single evaluation instrument is going to work from New Trier High School to Midland High School, from Cairo to Rockton. We need to slow things down and study how evaluation can be used effectively. Then each school district should use that information to carefully and thoughtfully create an instrument that works for its teachers.Brad Boeker has taught public high school students in Illinois for 21 years.