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Thompson: An Apology To Craig Jerald

Teacherseason
I owe Craig Jerald an apology, and not for just misspelling his name.  Commenting on my "snarky" post from last week, Jerald reminded me of his recent report, "On Her Majesty's School Inspection Service."  Rereading Jerald's "Movin' It and Improvin' It" after a week's distance, and in the context of his call for an inspectorate-type system, I realized that the tone of my report was inappropriate.  I still stand by my argument that it is impossible to maintain a "movin' it" approach that creates "churn" and still have effective professional development.  "Churn" in an age of "accountability" creates a fearfulness that is not compatible with high-quality professional development.  I am still suspicious of reports issued by think tanks that might show a great deal of balance but whose publicity materials are more slanted. And I stand by my position that the mixed messages sent by reformers make it inevitable that legislators and administrators would mandate destructive policies.  But, frankly, I had forgotten that it was Jerald who had written the outstanding inspectorate report (although some of the bitter reaction it prompted also provides more evidence for my case) and it prompted me to reread his latest with fresh eyes. So, Mr. Jerald, please let me try again.

Your report cited an excellent CEP report by Robert Pianta, which I have praised and disseminated within my own district.  You cited another great study by Tony Byrk (which I believe implicitly calls some of your position into question.)  You cited another CEP report which I have disagreed with, but I strongly agree with your statement that, "But simply reassuring teachers is not enough. If the challenge is framed merely as a tactical communications problem about securing “buy-in” from stakeholders, and leaders do not back up their rhetoric with policies that really can help all teachers improve, then teachers will only become all the more embittered later."

I strongly disagree with your statement regarding the effectiveness of the "core mechanism" of "churning."  You do not make a case that it can be effective in improving teacher quality in urban schools.  You certainly did not make the case that "improvin' it" can coexist with "movin' it'" within the context of this poisonous climate of teacher-bashing.

I have long supported the efficient removal  of ineffective teachers, while opposing the collective punishment of test-driven accountability which reduces the effectiveness of most of us.  I have long contrasted the actual words in reports published by the CEP, and other advocates of reform, and their spin.  I have long argued that they represent collective punishment directed towards effective teachers who teach in ineffective schools.

But, I should not have done the same thing to you.  I should have argued against the points you made, and not let my frustration with the CEP color my reading of your work. In this report, you sounded supportive of peer review, and when you reminded me of your report on the value of an objective inspectorate, I realized that I had done to you what too many "reformers" have done in regard to the professional judgments of veteran teachers. Besides, you may have a better way, politically, to get us out of the blame and shame game that was caused by the way that the "movin' it" approach has historically been implemented.

Please accept my apology and do not let my snark overshadow the substance of my argument.-JT (@drjohnthompson)Image via.

Comments

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John, of course I accept your very gracious apology, and I thank you for this post (and for your kind words about the school inspection paper). I know how emotionally fraught this issue can be, especially for teachers or individuals who have recently been in the classroom. Even though I taught 15 years ago, I often experience the same anger when it seems like teachers are being bashed. And thank you for explicating your main points of disagreement in greater detail; I think they are very worthy of consideration and continued discussion. Allow me to clarify where I'm coming from on a couple of them:

First, I agree that the way in which evaluation systems themselves are designed is important and can have a tremendous impact on how the evaluations play out for good or ill. I intentionally skirted technical issues related to evaluation system design in the CAP paper because I wanted to address the kinds of policies states and districts are putting in place to increase measured effectiveness, which I felt wasn’t getting enough attention. For the record, like you I am very favorably inclined toward involving expert teachers formal observers. I especially admire Hillsborough County’s recent Peer Evaluator and Mentor Evaluator initiative and the TAP System’s long history of including Master Teachers and Mentor Teachers as formal observers. (I wrote about this in a paper co-authored for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching last year: http://bit.ly/tJSQKV.)

Second, however, I do continue to strongly disagree with you that school systems cannot implement “movin’ it” policies and “improvin’ it” policies at the same time, and I think there’s some on-the-ground evidence to support my contention. One good example comes from the Benwood Initiative in Hamilton County, Tennessee, which Education Sector discussed in a 2008 report: http://bit.ly/zVxaui. For several years, the media focused on highly publicized “movin’ it” policies related to that effort, but it turned out that most of the gains in teaching effectiveness came from from better professional development and support. The bottom line: Initiatives involving teacher recruitment, retention, and dismissal did not prevent the Benwood schools from ALSO providing much better professional development and support, and that’s a good thing, because it paid off big time for teachers and students.

Of course, if “movin’ it” policies are designed to feel like an unfair system of rewards and punishment to teachers, then the culture of schools might very well become so toxic that professional development and support are undermined. But that’s not inevitable by any means. In New Haven, teachers can be dismissed if they continue to perform at an unacceptable level under the district’s new evaluation system, and several dozen teachers have been. However teachers do not view the evaluation system as unfair or punitive. In fact, a few weeks ago American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten wrote of New Haven, “While much of the media attention was on the teachers who didn't make the grade, the real story was that this collaboratively negotiated approach focused on continuous improvement for all teachers in the district.”

Is it any surprise that both of my examples involved a great deal of collaboration between district officials and local teachers unions? I think not. And that might in fact be one very important key to designing a comprehensive set of policies that allow “movin’ it” and “improvin’ it” mechanisms to work together to improve the effectiveness of the teaching workforce. In retrospect, I should have made that point much clearer that in the paper.

p.s. I didn't intend to offend anyone in using the the word “churning” to describe the core mechanism of the “movin’ it” approach; I merely meant to be accurately descriptive. That’s the way economists who are the main proponents of that approach, like Rick Hanushek, tend to view it: Creating a salutary “churn” in the teaching workforce so that teachers who are more effective are more likely to enter and stay and those who are less effective are more likely to leave. I know that very notion offends some teachers, but I think it’s important to get beyond palliative euphemisms and be clear about the thinking behind these two different kinds of strategies for increasing teaching effectiveness. One involves moving teachers in and out and around based on their measured (or predicted) effectiveness, and the other involves helping teachers improve their measured effectiveness.

I guess I should go back to both of my posts and see my precise wording. Typically, I try to be explicit that yes, "there’s some on-the-ground evidence to support my contention." I typicaly add the words "systemically" or "across the nation," in "a culture of accountability." My position is that some districts will always be able to balance the two. Some, will completely opt for the abusive, and most will be somewhere in the middle.

Peer review, or an objective third party, would be the best check and balance. But a check and balance must be nailed down in advance. My complaint is with reformers, and especially Arne Duncan, who ask districts to play nice but empower districts to be constructive or destruction with their accountability systems. Gates, at least, has leverage because of their control of the moneystrings. But raises questions about whether their pilots are representative.

I support Benwwod, Hillsborough, New Haven, and the like. I suspect that those districts also have administrators with abusive streaks. But because everyone is watching, they have pressure to play nice. No such constraints exist in many or most schools across this diverse nation during an age of "accountability" where most incentives encourage teacher-bashing.

So we definitely agree that the ways in which teacher evaluation policies, and policies to increase teaching effectiveness, are designed and implemented will have a big impact on whether they result in positive growth for teachers and students. That's true of any education policy or program, though I understand your concern that local district and school leaders will not understand the philosophy behind evaluation reforms in particular and thus narrowly interpret them in ways that lead to punitive-seeming implementation. I think here is where we really part ways: I'm optimistic that if leaders at all levels commit to better communicating the best vision of what these reforms can be, and explicitly reject the worst, that will go a long way to avoiding the problem you foresee. Now, I understand that's a big "if." As I Tweeted last night: "Would it have killed @arneduncan to add 'and develop' to 'attract, retain, and reward great teachers' in his @hgse speech?"

Great tweet. But don't you think that part of the problem is that Duncan is balancing two agendas. He wants to help kids, but he wants to give the teacher-bashers just enough of the pound of flesh they desire in order the sound tough by using the word, "Accountability" over and over and thus sound tough?

Besides, I'm less concerned about words, and more interested in concrete checks and balances before moving into the riskiest of policies.

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