Peer Review…

Two thoughts on today’s WaPo look at peer review for teachers.  First, great lede, more cowbell is exactly what this field needs…Second, is it not a little odd that at a time when we’re clamoring for third party regulation in most other fields education is romanticizing an idea that runs the other way?  Peer review has a role, but unless it’s coupled with much more rigorous standards and engagement with data and some managerial discretion it’s insufficient.  Toledo is an interesting and important model but when you unpack the numbers and the evaluations there is less there than meets the eye…

7 Replies to “Peer Review…”

  1. Would it be too harsh to suggest that the reason we have so much trouble firing bad teachers is that we let so many into the profession to begin with?

    I’m shocked by the hiring practices of most schools. Few, if any, ever ask revealing interview questions or actually watch a prospective teacher teach a single class.

    My favorite interview question: “You’re applying for a 3rd grade position. Tell me how you teach reading?” Asking a teacher to explain how she teaches a particular subject at a particular grade is extremely revealing and an essential aspect of evaluating potential competence.

    “Tell me about your approach to managing the classroom.” This is another perfect question to ask.

    Or how about this one: “Tell me the last two or three professional books you’ve read, what major concepts struck you as valuable, and how you would implement these ideas in your classroom?”

    There’s three simple interview questions that can be used very easily to determine whether or not a teacher will be successful. But I’ve never known either of them to be asked.

    Firing bad teachers isn’t nearly the problem that we think it is. It’s hiring bad teachers in the first place that causes the biggest problems.

  2. I take issue with the idea that a teacher can be quantified as “good” or “bad” independent of the students, school and circumstances. I’ve seen good teachers struggle in stressful situations and less experienced teachers coast with “easy” students.

    As the article noted, the struggling teacher at the beginning of the year became a much better teacher by the end of the year. This leads me to think that many “bad” teachers (especially newer teachers) are simply trying the wrong strategies or could use a little advice or support from the administration or colleagues.

    For instance, when I taught English at a high-poverty school, it was amazing how quickly some of my most difficult students became productive and well-behaved once I collaborated with the school basketball coach, who told the kids they couldn’t play on Friday if they didn’t do their English homework.

  3. What about teachers who teach using direct instruction and explicit examples, and use texts and resources that are proven rather than the snake oil that passes as a curriculum? I.e., the teacher who realizes that Investigations math isn’t going to work, and teaches the students what they really need to be learning? Is that considered “bad” teaching? What about the teacher who doesn’t succumb to the fad of group work, and differentiated homework assignments and tests?

  4. There are many aspects of ed reform that are patently senseless but one crucial aspect seems to be positively schizophrenic. On one side, we have years of research and the endorsement of people like Bill Gates to tell us that high quality teachers are the most important determiner of student learning and the key to education reform. On the other side, we have people, mostly teachers, who say that it is absolutely impossible (or at least ridiculously difficult) to figure out which teachers are better than others.

    As someone who has worked in hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms, and who has probably observed in some way or another the work of maybe 10,000 teachers, this seems to me a silly argument. Of course we can tell which teachers are better than others. Relative quality can be determined for almost any person or thing or trait.

    One trait we use when working in schools and districts is the likelihood of that a given teacher will change his or her practice. We assess this because it tells us who to focus our training time on. We focus initially on “high change” teachers so we can quickly establish models of practice for other teachers farther on down the line.

    To do this, we use two strategies: the standard “early adopter” model for consumer buying patterns and a simple multi-rater feedback system. Using these tools and an informal survey of teachers in workshops and in their classrooms, tells us with great accuracy who the most likely teachers are to benefit from training. Once given the training, these teachers tend to get superior results in many different aspects of their teaching.

    Many of these people quickly rise to being some of the most effective teachers in their buildings. But some don’t. Why? They can’t quite master the techniques. But this, too, is easy to see. And, because we use a self-assessment component for teachers, it’s pretty easy for them to see, too.

    But what about teachers who don’t participate in training? Or those who teach in an entirely different or perhaps even unique way? With just a small amount of observation, interviewing, and working with their kids, it’s not too hard to see how effective they are. Of course, implicit in this judgment is the notion of effectiveness and how we define it?

    To answer this question, I would look to the thousands of organizations who evaluate their employees on a regular basis. The best evaluations are those that tell us the degree to which a given person exemplifies organizational values and/or contributes to organizational goals. In short, determining the criteria for judgment, and the person doing the judging is simply a matter of knowing, as a group, who you are and where you’re going. Organizations do this all over the world and professional literature abounds on how to do it well.

    So let’s agree at least that teachers can be ranked by effectiveness at least in so far as organizational values and goals can be defined. Then, after this bit of the argument is over, we can spend some time talking about what those values and goals might be.

  5. Attorney DC, determining “good” and “bad” teachers is no more silly than determining good or bad in any other profession. Yes, there are other variables to consider, and, yes, people improve over time. Might a teacher now and then lose their job due to bad decision making? Yes indeed. But all of this doesn’t change that fact that, for the most part, it’s not that hard to identify an effective teacher.

    The real question for the principals out there is what to do with the ineffective teachers. Most of the time, the answer is not to dismiss them but to work with them. But, should a principal decide that it’s best for everyone to move forward, an ineffective teacher is due no more special consideration than any other professional who is not getting the job done.

  6. Matthew: My problem with labeling a teacher “good” or “bad” (or a school “passing” or “failing”) is that it assigns an either/or value to their performance. Working in other fields (now law, but previously non-profits and other businesses), I’ve never seen an organization that labels all their employees “good” or “bad.”

    In a field as diverse as teaching (where a teacher may be teaching a self-contained elementary special education class or an AP biology class), I find it inappropriate to label a teacher “good” or “bad” independent of their experience level, subject, course load, administrators and students. If you want to say, “This teacher is not effective teaching remedial English to students with serious emotional problems with little administrative or parental support” then I would agree with that assessment for certain teachers. But that same teacher could be extremely effective teaching AP English in a school across town. That’s what riles me about subjective assessments of teachers: Many new teachers aren’t “bad” – they’re merely inexperienced. Any many teachers who struggle with certain classes may be perfectly competent teaching other classes.

    As a lawyer, no one expects us to know everything about practicing law on the first day out of law school. Yet people have no problem identifying a teacher as “bad” and “ineffective” if the teacher does not know everything about teaching on their first day out of ed school. I think the public needs to be more realistic and realize that teachers, like all people, have strengths and weaknesses and can thrive in one environment while languishing in another.

  7. I have just read the article and follow-up posts. I was a substitute teacher for 2 years in one school and had volunteered as a parent before then. I had proven myself with parents and staff, and grade level teachers were pushing their administrator to hire me. Parent teacher conference went very well, and many parents said wonderful, inspiring things to me. I did grade cards for absent teachers and worked every single day in long-term assignments. I was not an inexperienced teacher either since I had also taught first and second grade in a private school that was too far of a drive, since I now had my own children.

    I was called by the principal who stated a desire for me to interview for a position in that grade. I had not planned to do so just yet, but was thrilled and decided to go full-time.( I think my fellow teachers were the root of this call.)

    There were two people chosen for the second interview, myself and another teacher who has become a good friend. The day before the interview I was told not to be disappointed if I didn’t get the job by the principal. I should have already known the job was not mine. In addition, I was told that this teacher had gone to the district as a student and that her dad worked for the district. I was mortified and saddened. No matter how good I was and no matter how effective I was with parents, students, and staff, my efforts meant nothing in the face of politics. People get hired based on who they know for the most part. Our district is well-known to hire in this fashion. Yes, much can be written about what to ask in interviews, but for the most part, I have seen many hidden agendas among many school districts as evident in conversations with fellow teachers. It is sad.

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