12 Winters Blog

Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s army

Posted in August 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 17, 2014

(This is a long post — and for that, my apologies. But it’s important, and I encourage you to take your time and read it thoroughly.)

Because of my interest in the subject (as demonstrated in my blog posts over the past few months), I was invited to participate in a video roundtable via Skype with administrators from several schools about implementing the Danielson Framework for Teacher Evaluation, and I found many of the comments, well, bewildering. Even though it was a select group, I strongly suspect that their attitudes and approaches are representative of not only administrators in Illinois, but across the country — as the Danielson Framework has been adopted by numerous states. Before I go any further I must stress that these are all good people who are trying to do their job as they understand it from the State Board of Education, their own local school boards and the public at large. Around the video table were a superintendent of a k-12 district, building principals of elementary, middle, junior high and high schools, and even a k-12 curriculum director, along with three teachers — elementary, junior high and high school (yours truly). I’m going to try to represent their words accurately, but without attribution since their comments were not on the record. In fact, as the two-hour video chat became more heated, several people were speaking with a good deal of candor, and clearly their remarks were not intended for all ears. (By the way, kudos to the tech folks who brought us all together — it worked far better than I would have suspected.)

I considered not writing about the video conference at all, but ultimately felt that I owe it to the profession that I’ve devoted my adult life to (as I enter my 31st year in the classroom), a profession that has been beleaguered in recent years by powerful forces on every side: attacking teachers’ integrity, our skills, our associations, our job security, our pensions. We feel we have so many enemies, we don’t even know where to focus our attention.

What is more, most teachers are afraid to speak candidly with their own administrators and they’re especially afraid to speak out about what’s going on in their buildings. In spite of education reformers blanketing the media with the myth of “powerful teachers unions,” the truth is that associations like the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers aren’t all that powerful — if they were, would teachers be in the plight we are now? — and individual teachers are very vulnerable.  Nontenured teachers can be terminated without cause, and tenured teachers can be legally harassed right out of the profession. In fact, it happens all the time. Moreover, teachers tend to be naturally non-confrontational, which is why they chose to go into teaching in the first place. People with more aggressive personalities will seek other kinds of professions. As a result, we’ve been lambs to slaughter at the hands of reformers, legislators, school board members, administrators … at the hands of anyone who wants to take a whack at us. Rather than fight back, it’s easier to keep quiet and bear it, or to move on.

I’ve been writing about educational issues for the past several months — the unfair termination of young teachers, the inherent flaws of the Danielson Framework, the way the Framework affects teachers, and my issues with PARCC and the Common Core. My posts have been garnering hundreds of hits, and a few online likes, but many, many private, under-the-radar thumbs-ups and thank-yous. Teachers appreciate that someone is speaking out, but they’re not only afraid to speak out themselves, they’re even afraid to be seen agreeing with my point of view. If this isn’t evidence of the precariousness of being a teacher and the overall weakness of “teachers unions,” I don’t know what is.

Public Opinion and the Rarefied Air of Excellence

Much of the round-table discussion had to do with the Framework’s insistence that very, very few teachers rank in the top category (identified as “Excellent” in many districts’ plans). Before Danielson, districts tended to have three-tier evaluation instruments, which were often labeled as “Excellent,” “Satisfactory” and “Unsatisfactory.” Danielson adds a tier between “Excellent” and “Satisfactory”: “Proficient.” Many veteran teachers who had consistently received an excellent rating under the previous model were downgraded to merely proficient under Danielson. This downgrading was predicted as early as two years ago when the new instrument emerged on the educational horizon.  I didn’t want to believe it would be that severe, but it has been this past year, the year of implementation, with very few teachers being rated as excellent. For the record, I was rated as proficient — not as excellent for the first time since I was a nontenured teacher, more than 25 years ago.

In fact, as I wrote in a previous post, the Illinois Administrators Academy offered a special workshop this past summer to train administrators how to deliver the unpleasant news that a veteran teacher has been downgraded to proficient — the downgrading was so pervasive across the state. The Framework was originally developed by Charlotte Danielson in 1996 as a way to evaluate first-year teachers, so it made perfect sense that a single-digit percentage would be deemed as excellent. The Framework has undergone three revisions since then and now purports to be an instrument that can assess every teacher, K-12, every subject, and even nonclassroom professionals like librarians and school nurses. Nevertheless, the notion that very, very few teachers will rate as excellent has clung tenaciously to the Framework throughout each revision.

I asked the administrators why that aspect of the Framework remains even though the Framework’s purpose has been expanded dramatically since it was conceived in the mid-1990s. I was told by the k-12 superintendent that the Framework has gained such wide acceptance in large part due to that very aspect. Under previous evaluation instruments, 90% of teachers were judged to be excellent, and the public doesn’t accept that as true. In fact, the public believes (and therefore school boards, too, since they, like the public at large, are almost always noneducators with no classroom experience) that the traditional bell curve should apply to teachers. The bell curve, or Gaussian function, is of course the statistical representation that says the fewest examples of anything, qualitatively speaking, are at either extreme of the gathered samples, and the vast majority (let’s say 80%) fall somewhere in the middle, from below average to above average.

According to the superintendent, then, the public believes that the bell curve should apply to experienced, career teachers as well — that only a small percentage are truly excellent, and the vast majority fall somewhere in the middle (to use Danielson terms, in the satisfactory to proficient range). First of all, who cares what the uninformed public thinks? In our country we have a fascination with asking pedestrians on the street what they think of global warming, heightened military involvement in the Middle East, and allowing Ebola victims to enter the country. John Oliver of “Last Week Tonight” did a segment on this phenomenon that went viral on social media:

Assuming this is true — that the public believes only a small percentage of teachers are excellent based, unconsciously, on the principle of the bell curve (and I’m willing to believe that it is true) — the belief yet again speaks to the ignorance of the “man on the street.” In this instance, the bell curve is being fallaciously applied. If you take a random sampling of people (let’s say, you go to the mall at Christmas time and throw a net around a random group of shoppers) and task them with teaching some random topic to a random group of students, then, yes, the bell curve is likely to be on target. In that group of shoppers, lo and behold, you netted a couple of professional teachers, so they’re able to teach the material pretty effectively; another much larger group of shoppers who are decently educated and reasonably articulate could do a passable job imparting the information; and a smaller group on the other extreme would really make a botch of it.

But career teachers are not a random sampling of shoppers at the mall. They’re highly educated professionals who have devoted their lives to teaching, who have constantly worked to improve their craft, and who have honed their skills via thousands of contact hours with students. It stands to reason, in fact, that career teachers should be excellent at what they do after all that training and experience. No one, I suspect, would have an issue with the statement that all Major League baseball players are excellent at baseball — some may be bound for Cooperstown and some may go back to the minors or to some other career altogether after a season or two, but they’re all really, really good at playing baseball compared to the average person. Why is it so hard to believe that 90% of career teachers are excellent at what they do?

The Fallacy of the Bell Curve and Nontenured Teachers

Unfortunately, the acceptance of the bell-curve fallacy has an even more devastating impact when applied to teachers in the beginning of their careers. One administrator shared that her board expects a few nontenured teachers to be terminated every spring, that the board implies the administrators aren’t doing their jobs if every nontenured teacher is retained. I was dumbfounded by this statement. It’s barely a figurative comparison to say that it’s like having to sacrifice a virgin or two to appease the gods at the vernal equinox. It’s no wonder that many young teachers feel as if they’re performing their highly complex duties with a Damoclesian Sword poised above their tender necks. I know firsthand one young teacher who resigned last spring after two years in the classroom to pursue another career option because she’d seen the way other young teachers were treated and had already experienced some administrative harassment. And this was a teacher who by all accounts was doing well in the classroom (in a specialized area in which there aren’t a lot of qualified candidates). She didn’t even know what she wanted to do for a living, but it will have to be better (and professionally safer) than teaching, she believed. I have to believe she’s right.

But, again, in the case of young teachers, the bell curve is being applied erroneously.  Generally speaking, when teachers are hired, administrators are drawing from an applicant pool in the hundreds. They’re college educated, trained in their field, and they’ve passed their professional exams. They often have to go through multiple rounds of interviewing before being offered a position. Of course, even after all of this, there can be young teachers who have chosen their profession poorly and in fact they’re not cut out for teaching — but school board members shouldn’t just assume a certain number should be cut from the herd to make room for potentially more effective young professionals — and if that sort of pressure is being applied to administrators, to be the bearers of the bloody hatchet every spring, that is grossly unfair, too.

The Danielson Group’s Indoctrination

The evaluation training that administrators have to undergo, all forty hours of it, indoctrinates them to the Danielson Framework’s ethos that excellent is all but attainable, and it has led to all kinds of leaping logic and gymnastic semantics. An idea that was expressed multiple times in various ways during the roundtable was that proficient really means excellent, and a rating of excellent really means something beyond excellent — what precisely is unclear, but it has to do with teachers going above and beyond (above what? beyond where? … no one seems to know or be able to articulate). The Framework was often referred to as “fact-based” and “objective,” yet administrator after administrator couldn’t put into words what distinguishes a “proficient” teacher from an “excellent” one. It’s just a certain feeling — which is the very definition of subjectivity. The Framework for Teacher Evaluation approach is fact-laden, but it is far from fact-based.

The Danielson model is supposed to be an improvement over previous ones in part because it requires evaluators to observe teachers more than in the past. In the old system, typically, tenured teachers were observed one class period every other year. Now they’re observed one class period plus several pop-in visits, which may last only a few minutes, every other year. The Framework recommends numerous visits, even for veteran teachers, but in practicality evaluators are doing well to pop in a half dozen times or so because they have so many teachers to evaluate. Nevertheless, the increased frequency seems to give administrators the sense that they have a secure hold on the behaviors of their teachers and know with confidence what they’re doing in their classes. This confidence, frankly, is troubling. Let’s be generous and say that a principal can observe a teacher for a total of three class periods (one full period, plus bits of four or five other ones). Meanwhile, the typical teacher teaches, say, six periods per day for 180 days, which equals 1,080 periods. Three class periods represent less than one percent (0.3 percent, rounding up) of that teacher’s time with students during the year. How in the world can an evaluator say with confidence Teacher A is excellent and Teacher B is really close, but definitely only proficient based on seeing them teach less than one percent of the time?

Yet one principal said with confidence, bravado even, that he could observe two high-performing teachers who had always been rated as excellent in the past, and based on his Danielson-style observations he could differentiate between the excellent high-performing teacher and the proficient high-performing teacher, because, he said, the excellent teacher was doing something consistently, whereas the proficient teacher was doing that something only some of the time — what that something is was left undefined. If a writer submitted an academic article to a peer-reviewed journal and was drawing rock-solid conclusions based on observing anything .03% of the time … well, let us say that acceptance for publication would be unlikely.

The same standards of logic should be applied to judging teachers’ careers and assessing their worth to the profession. Period.

The Portfolio Conundrum

The confident administrator may point to another component of the Danielson model that is supposed to be an improvement over the previous approach: a portfolio prepared by the teacher. Teachers are supposed to provide their evaluator with evidence regarding their training and professionalism (especially for Danielson domains 1 and 4, “Planning and Preparation” and “Professional Responsibilities”), but there are some inherent problems with this approach and a lot of confusion. As far as confusion, principals seem to be in disagreement about how much material teachers should provide them. Some suggest only a few representative items, but the whole idea is for the portfolio to fill in the blanks for the evaluator, to make the evaluator aware of professional behaviors and activities that he or she can’t observe in the classroom (especially when they’re observing a teacher less than one percent of their time with students!). However, if teachers hand in thick portfolios, filled with evidence, the overburdened principal (and I’m not being sarcastic here), the overburdened principal hardly has time to pore through dozens of portfolios that look like they were prepared by James Michener (I debated between Michener and Tolstoy) — which leaves teachers in a conundrum: Do they turn in a modest amount of evidence, thereby selling themselves short, or do they submit copious amounts of evidence that won’t be read and considered by their evaluator anyway?

And it’s a moot question, of course, since nearly all teachers are going to be lumped into the proficient category to satisfy the public’s erroneous bell-curve expectations.

The Undervaluing of Content

I’ll add one bit more from the conversation because it leads to another important point — perhaps the most important — and that is one principal’s statement that he mainly focuses on a teacher’s delivery of the material and not the validity of the content because he usually doesn’t have the background in the subject area. In larger school districts, there may be department chairs who are at least in part responsible for evaluating teachers in their department (so an English teacher evaluates an English teacher, or a math teacher, a math teacher, etc.), but the vast majority of evaluations, for tenured and nontenured teachers alike, are performed by administrators outside of the content area. This, frankly, has always been a problem and largely invalidates the entire teacher evaluation system, but when the system was mainly benign, no one fussed too much about it (not even me). Now, however, when tenure and seniority laws have been weakened, and principals are programmed to be niggardly with excellent ratings, the fact that evaluators oftentimes have no idea if the teacher is dispensing valid knowledge or not undermines the whole approach.

Not to mention, the Danielson Framework claims to place about fifty percent of a teacher’s effectiveness on his or her knowledge of the subject. The  portfolios are supposed to help with this dilemma (the portfolios that aren’t being read with any sort of care because of time issues). I’m dubious, though, that this is a legitimate concern of the framers of the Danielson Framework because they definitely privilege an approach to teaching that places the burden of knowledge production with the students. That is, ideally teachers are facilitating their students’ acquisition of knowledge through self-discovery, but they’re not imparting that knowledge to them directly. Indeed, excellent teachers do very little direct teaching at all.

This devaluation of content-area knowledge has been a growing trend for several years, and it’s not surprising that administrators are easily swayed toward this mindset. After all, teachers who go into administration have made the choice to pursue knowledge not in their subject-area field. Very, very few administrators have a masters degree in their original content area in addition to their administrative degrees and certificates. In theory, they may accept the idea that broader and deeper knowledge in your subject area is important, but they can’t truly understand just how valuable (even invaluable) it is since they didn’t teach as someone with an advanced degree in their field. They’re only human after all, and none of us can truly relate to an experience we haven’t had ourselves.

Campbell Brown and Her Unwitting Campbell Brown-shirts

We didn’t talk about this during the video round-table, but it seems clear to me that none of the administrators had any sense of the role they’re playing in the larger scheme of things. The players are too numerous and the campaign too complex to get into here in any depth, but there’s unquestionably a movement afoot to privatize education — that is, to take education out of the hands of trained professionals and put it in the hands of underpaid managers so that corporations can reap obscene profits, and turn traditional public schools into barely funded welfare institutions. The well-to-do will be able to send their sons and daughters to these corporate-backed charter schools, and middle-class parents can dig their infinite hole of financial debt even deeper in an effort to keep up and send their children to the private, corporate schools as well.

Campbell Brown and the Partnership for Educational Justice were behind the lawsuit that made teacher tenure unconstitutional in California (the Vergara decision), and they’re at it again in New York (Wright v. New York). The Danielson Framework, wielded by brainwashed administrators, is laying the groundwork for Vergara-like lawsuits across the land. Imagine how much easier it will be for Brown and partners in “reform” like David Boles to make the case that public schools are failing because, see, only a handful of teachers are performing at the top of their field. The rest, 90-something percent, are varying shades of mediocre, with powerful teachers unions shielding their mediocrity from public view.

Superintendents and principals have drunk the Campbell Brown-colored Kool-Aid. In this instance the metaphor is especially apropos because there are already movements underway to dismiss traditionally trained administrators as underqualified. In Illinois, the State Board of Education is changing from certificates to licenses and in the process requiring additional training to become an administrator. It is a recent change, but already there are insinuations that administrators who received the traditional training are going to be underqualified compared to their newly licensed colleagues.

Moreover, what does it say about a principal as recruiter of young talent when a significant number of his new hires have to be terminated year after year? What a waste of money and resources, and what a  disservice to children! And what does it say about a principal as educational leader of his building when he can’t even shape the majority of his veteran teachers into excellent practitioners? Clearly, he’s not especially excellent either. And all those well-paid superintendents who hired all those lackluster principals, well … And all those publicly elected boards of education who hired all those lackluster superintendents, well … the gross mismanagement of taxpayer dollars is bordering on criminal fraud.

As I see it, the Partnership for Educational Justice’s grand scheme is to have principals help them dismantle professional associations like the NEA and AFT via their use of the Danielson Framework, state by state. Then they’ll systematically replace public schools with corporate-backed charter schools which will be staffed by undertrained, low-paid “teachers,” and instead of principals, each school/franchise will be overseen by a manager — just as it works in the corporate world now. Instead of boards of education who answer to taxpayers there will be boards of directors who answer to shareholders. Brilliant.

So every time principals sign an evaluation that undervalues their teachers, they’re also signing their own resignation letter. It’s all right: they’ll look quite fetching in their Brown-shirts as they wait in the unemployment line.

tedmorrissey.com

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2 Responses

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  1. […] schools) — an argument I’ve been making for months, especially in my August 17, 2014, post “Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s […]

  2. […] teachers and unimproved (if not diminished) performance in the classroom. (See in particular “Principals unwitting soldiers in Campbell Brown’s army” and “Lowered teacher evaluations require special training.”) At present, teachers are […]


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