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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

CA Court Whiffs on Key Question

A California judge ruled yesterday that so-called "first in, last out" teacher laws violate students' equal opportunity to have Great Teachers. And while many commentators have found this to be a much-needed repudiation of the "old guard" teacher labor paradigm, dominated by unions, I can say that as the son of a former teacher who actually would have been laid off under a "first in, last out" system at a newspaper, the ruling is amazing for its exceptional blind spot: 

We have no idea what a Great Teacher for these kids would look like. 

While there are scant few obviously Great and obviously Bad teachers, the overwhelming number are neither. Yet we act like there's a Platonic Form of a Great Teacher out there that will be Great for Every Kid in Every School, and the only thing standing between our kids and that Platonic ideal is a Teacher's Union.

But is that the case?

I mean, we all know that Aristotle was a Great Teacher for Alexander, but would Aristotle have been a Great Teacher in front of 60 kids, 7 times a day in an 8th Grade building on the South Side of Chicago, or in Boone County, West Virginia, or in Beverly Hills? 

I don't know. 

And this is the huge logical hole that remains at the core of all this "a Great Teacher for every kid" argument. We talk about Great Teachers like we know what one actually is, or some magic metric can tell us, or that we actually agree on the Platonic Form that teacher would take. It's a given that Great Teachers should be teaching our most at-risk kids just as frequently as our most privileged. However, the assumption many make is that Great Teachers for privileged students would be just as Great teaching at-risk kids. The ideal, Platonic teacher for one kid is the ideal for every kid, so goes the assumption.

Yet nothing could be less certain. Ask parents who request teachers for their kids based on sterling recommendations from well-respected friends and educators, then realize their kids aren't a match a month into what ends up being a very ordinary school year. 

Subjectivity in teacher quality is the wild card in determining teacher effectiveness. And sometimes, kids aren't aware of how Great their teachers are until far down their life road.

For example, I had two high school teachers that I really didn't like at the time. They demanded that I practice, work, study and do all the things an immature teenager doesn't want to do. I mean, I really hated going to Mr. Appling's music and Mrs. Pryce's French classes. Because I knew I hadn't done enough preparation to their standard, but I did enough to get by, so why wasn't that good enough? They're so mean!

Well, they knew I could do better. They expected more from me, even if I didn't expect it from myself.

Now, if you let me do a teacher evaluation of these two phenomenal teachers at the time, I would have excoriated them. I would have hammered them for their tough teaching styles and "unreasonable" expectations. And I wouldn't have been alone. Everyone I knew would have given them the same marks.

Today, I recognize that they were Great Teachers because they showed me how hard I had to work. But if they were being judged on student evaluations, as many want us to do, they wouldn't have lasted a year.

Likewise, I have witnessed teachers who spend their entire years drilling their students for state achievement tests, with very little other curriculum. Their kids will score off the charts and show great growth. They actually brag about how highly their students score. But is that a Great Teacher? Or is it just Great test preparation? Under the proposed tying teacher evaluation to test scores regime, those teachers will be considered Great Teachers. 

However, I beg to differ.

The more I think of what a Great Teacher is, the more I think of the famous quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he described pornography: "I know it when I see it."

And what's even more complicated about evaluating teachers is one student's Aristotle is another's Elizabeth Halsey (look at IMDb for that reference). I can't tell you how often I would defend teachers I loved to classmates who hated them. And vice versa.

Adding more complication is that some Aristotles are Great Teachers in one environment and not so Great in others.

Some of the best teachers I ever had would have been far less successful in larger classes, for example, because they thrived on interactive discussions. I've had fantastic teachers in 300 student lectures, but they would have been not nearly as successful in smaller settings because they didn't like interaction at all.

Which brings me back to the California case. I have deep sympathy for kids who are in schools where they feel they're being denied access to the Great Teacher they deserve because of some outdated, union protection. But there is no guarantee that these "Great Teachers" will be Great teaching these students. They might even be worse. 

We just don't know.

The "first in, last out" paradigm is actually better than any we've come up with yet because it's about as objective as can be. It doesn't play favorites. It doesn't require a friendship with a principal. It doesn't force teachers to do combat with each other about who gets which kids so their test scores can be the highest on their evaluations.

Is it perfect? Far from it. It produces inequities. It lets go of good, great teachers even. But absent a truly substantive, thorough evaluation system, it's the best, most objective system we've got. That's why I didn't complain much about potentially being laid off at the newspaper I worked at because I was more junior than others. I didn't have to worry about whether I had a certain number of bylines, or whether my work led to a certain numbers of legislative changes. Or whether I won awards (which I did several times). Or whether I dangled too many participles. I just did my job the best I could, and if the economy wouldn't support my employment at the paper, so be it. 

That fact spurred me to go to law school so I would have something to fall back on if the layoffs did happen. Luckily, I found an exciting new career before the layoffs hit my level of seniority. 

Likewise, when you get into substantive evaluation of teaching excellence, it is so much more complicated than how a teacher's kids score on tests, or whether the kids like them, or whether the parents feel like the teachers are their friends. 

It's really, really complicated. Really.

The best system I can imagine is one that does take test scores, teacher and parent evaluations into some minor account, but is overwhelmingly driven by close evaluation by principals and lead teachers. They'll be best able to identify teachers who are best matched to each environment. 

It is through deep, meaningful evaluation that teachers will be placed most effectively in the classroom, or let go. However, without proper resources to accomplish these meaningful evaluations, principals will be stretched to their limits, evaluating teachers quickly because they simply don't have time to evaluate everyone the way they need to be. 

And that will lead to inequities as well, equally as egregious as the ones mentioned in the California case.

(Need I mention that the greatest inequity is how schools are funded? But that's another story for another day.)

The silver lining I see in the California case is this: It could force policymakers and educators to figure out a more thorough, meaningful evaluation system that provides a better, more complete picture of what a Great Teacher looks like for which kids, and where they're best placed. Yet without financial backing, I fear these systems won't be implemented properly, and we will have continued inequities in the system, with children being denied access to the Great Teacher they need and deserve.

Because right now, if you asked me, "What makes a Great Teacher?" I would have to give the Potter Stewart answer, with a twist:

I know it when I see it. Even if I don't realize it until 10 years later.