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Monday, June 18, 2012

Realistic accountability will retain good teachers

Everyone believes that teachers and schools should be accountable for the quality of their efforts, and rightly so. Teachers are supportive of that notion as well, so long as the methods of measuring accountability are based on something tangible and realistic. Random and subjective methods of evaluating teacher performance are frustrating and lead to a loss of morale, ultimately resulting in a lack of qualified teachers. Such a situation is bad for all stakeholders: teachers, students, parents, and society in general.

The State of Indiana has put together something called the RISE rubric, which it deems to be a fair and effective way to measure teacher effectiveness. To be fair, the skills measured by the rubric are indeed important to quality instruction. However, the method of acquiring those scores is subjective, random, and largely based upon the personality and biases of the person performing the evaluation.

It is likely to improve in the next few years as districts come up with ways to tailor the RISE rubric to their own situations. Urban teachers are likely to score much lower in areas such as classroom management and lesson pacing, for example, since urban culture does not mesh well with the traditional models of education. Vocal volume tends to be higher in urban classrooms, and students tend to be less on-task, at least to the casual observer. In my experience as an urban teacher, some of the most seemingly inattentive students are able to absorb classroom material and retain that information amazingly well, even compared to the quiet, manse students from whom one would typically expect better results.

Using the RISE criteria, if students are discussing other subjects while working on a group project, the teacher's management skills and/or lesson planning are deemed to fall into the  "Needs Improvement" category or, even worse, be "Ineffective." If a teacher should have to remind a few students to stay on track during independent practice (math problems, etc.), it is chalked up to poor planning and discipline. Even the content of class projects is put under the microscope, which will ultimately lead to teachers who are unwilling to think beyond the by-the-book types of lessons and experiment with ideas that really enhance absorption of the material.

As a new teacher in middle school social studies, I felt free to invent very involved projects that allowed my students to experience history and really get a feel for the cultures being studied. We used meditation and chanting to memorize the Chinese dynasties in order, complete with lotus position (for those flexible enough) and a bell to ring in between recitations. We practiced jousting with wooden shields and foam-tipped lances, students balanced on their knees on the backs of larger classmates. We designed suits of armor and constructed them using metallic poster board. We built sections of the Great Wall of China and linked them to make our own model that circled the classroom. In short, we made the material come alive.

When the principal walked in from time to time, he did not balk at the volume of the students as they cheered for their friends while jousting. He did not ask which standards were being addressed by building a suit of armor. He understood that such enrichment added to students' appreciation for history. In fact, every time I met former students in public, even years and years later, the students would recite the dynasties in order just to show me they still knew them.

As a Spanish teacher, I try to enhance grammar with cultural experiences and use art as a means to enhance comprehension. Students build their own pi├▒atas and do other projects that enhance their experience in class. They illustrate picture dictionaries to access the visual memory area of their brains, associating new words with the tactile and visual process of creating art. From a pedagogical, brain function perspective, such activities are highly effective. When my principal dropped in for his hour-long random evaluation visit, he derided the picture dictionaries as an ineffective use of time, essentially a waste. My principal is a former science teacher. He has never taught a foreign language. I have taught Spanish as a bilingual instructor, at the middle school level, and as an adjunct college professor. In all areas, my results have been outstanding. Indeed, even this year, one hundred percent of my students in the high school credit class passed their End of Course Assessments with a score of eighty percent or higher, exceeding the "Highly Effective" standard of ninety-eight percent. My end-of-year RISE rubric score? "Needs Improvement." Why? During two of the four random visits, three of which occurred when I was with my least cooperative class, I had to remind a few students to remain on-task. I was punished in my evaluation for using twenty-five minutes of class to make picture dictionaries. Although my results were solid, I was punished for my methods, even though they produced outstanding results.

I am seeking asylum in another state, or perhaps a change of occupation is in order. If I am limited to teaching in a manner dictated by a state agency whose members have not been teaching for decades, if at all, I cannot be the kind of teacher I want to be. If my results count for less than teaching "by the book," why am I doing this? I may soon be one of the many teachers to abandon the sinking ship. Experiments in education do not always succeed. Every creative lesson risks failure, but to abandon creativity means admitting defeat, refusing to adapt to the interests of students. I do not want to be a teacher in such an environment.

For more information on the RISE rubric, go to this link. I warn you, it looks good on paper. In practice, however, it is destined to result in stale lessons taught by overly cautious teachers. At least results will count for something next year; they counted for nothing this year. Had they counted, I would have been rated an "Effective" teacher. Such inconsistency and injustice is pushing me, as well as many other teachers, out of the system. Fewer and fewer college students are enrolling in teacher training programs. Well, the state has made its bed. I just feel sorry for the students who will have to lie in it.


  1. You are the only other teacher besides myself that sees the problem as the walkthroughs more than the standardized test results (not that there isn't a problem with that, mind you). Last year, I had 69 out of 72 kids pass my state test, many with advanced proficient. This year, I am in trouble because some kids called out answers and didn't put books back on the shelf. They walk in looking for one kid out of 30 who is chewing gum or wearing the wrong shoes, and that makes you unworthy of your job.

    1. It's quite nerve-wracking, isn't it?


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