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MSPnet Blog: “Teachers voices over a different channel”

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posted April 27, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

The progressive Network for Public Education (NPE) has issued a new report, “Teachers talk back:  Educators on the impact of teacher evaluation.”  The study reports on a survey of 2,964 teachers and administrators in 48 states.

It makes for interesting reading;  Valerie Strauss of “The Answer Sheet” does a good job of summarizing it, so I won’t attempt that here.  I do recommend it (with a caveat below), but not only (perhaps not even principally) for the numerical results.  More interesting to me is the way that the report (picking up on themes raised in the responses) connects current trends in the control and evaluation of teachers to consequences not typically reported.

For example:

Collaboration.  It is an article of my pedagogical faith that teachers need to be given substantial, regular time to collaborate in learning, and not just in planning. Moreover, it has appeared to me, as I have interviewed and observed teachers and schools over the years, that long-standing administrative practices have made it very difficult (in some places impossible) for teachers’ collaboration to be productive.  Faculty meetings and professional “days” (often actually “hours”) are often dominated by administrative, disciplinary, or regulatory matters that have little or nothing to do with teaching or learning.  The teachers themselves have little time to figure out their own learning goals, much less designing and implementing a program to move towards them (alone or together).  As time and money have gotten scarcer, the kinds of reflective, strategic learning that yields interesting experiments and enriched understanding are replaced by short bursts of workshops, online resources, and similar fare, which can have some value, but cannot substitute for deeper, collegial work.

In this survey, teachers speak of how “collaboration” is very often highly structured from above, and aimed at goals that seem extraneous to teachers’ needs: “Collaboration with colleagues is not teacher-focused. Administrators decide what we ‘collaborate.’”  The report comments “collaboration with colleagues is now carefully orchestrated by administration with a majority of time spent determining how to improve test scores.”  The locus of control and judgment is in the administration, in such schools, rather than in the faculty, increasing the sense that teachers are instruments to implement policy, rather than, well, teachers.  Demoralizing.

Stress, anxiety, and the anger of helplessness.  Many surveys of teachers have in the past reported high levels of dissatisfaction with the profession as regulatory “reforms” have been implemented across the country (e.g. the MetLife teacher surveys).  Of course, there are other studies, for example supported by the Gates Foundation, that are pleased to announce that teachers are generally happy and satisfied. (What does “data” mean in such studies?). In the current study, teachers report high levels of stress, health impacts, anxiety medications — and also observations on the impact on students of the current regulatory systems: “Students today are so stressed out because of high stakes testing. They don’t get to play outside as much, and they are evaluated constantly. They are just kids. They need to act like kids. Of course a third grade student isn’t college or career ready! I would hate to meet an 8 year old who is.”

Impact on relationships with parents and community. Teachers are the face of education to parents, and the main target of neoliberal criticisms of school quality, so they are thrust into the (for many) uncongenial role of defenders of the policies that parents find confusing (new standards, testing regimes, curricular narrowing, etc. ).  If teachers are feeling pressed by administrators or policy-makers to implement policies of dubious or unproven value, how much more cost is imposed by having also to take the blame for that policy, and speak on its behalf?  A…New York teacher wrote that her “community is at odds: half of them standing in defense of teachers and the other half believing the media’s assertions that teachers are overpaid for what they do.” 

There are other important topics addressed in this report, such as possible racial bias in teacher evaluations, or the effects of the widely used Danielson and Marzano systems of teacher evaluation (requiring extensive and exhausting documentation and paperwork, of the sort that bureaucracies love to require in the name of accountability, but which inevitably skew the very picture they are trying to “evaluate” by their burdensome process. Of course, we also hear about the demoralizing and often immoral effects of “value-added”  measures and teacher evaluation based heavily on student test scores and superficial observation — but these have been abundantly documented already.

On the whole. I think the report is provocative, and reinforces my own opinions so I read it with an approving nod.  Moreover, it is good to have diverse voices out there, from diverse sources, since the proponents of neoliberal “reforms” have powerful tools for advocacy and noise-making generally.

However, this study must be regarded primarily as a generator of hypotheses, since its methodology is invisible, and leaves this reader with the sense that one has read a small selection from a larger collection of anecdotes.  I spent a fair amount of time trying to find elsewhere on the NPE website any description of what the population was that they sampled, what instrument they used, and how they went about analyzing the data — even though there is a very extensive description of the team members who conducted the study and wrote the report.  On its face, then, the report feels like yet another partisan product.  It’s one I am sympathetic to, and will no doubt quote, but as presented it can only be suggestive and stimulating.   In future, I hope NPE will take care to issue “technical notes” or take some other measure to help us feel more confident of the strength of their results — and strengthen their reports as instruments for advocating better education practice and policy.