Last Monday night, many of us watched the Seattle Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers with a controversial touchdown pass. Then we watched it again, and again and again. It was an interesting play; two “referees” saw the same thing from pretty much the same angle, but while the guy on the left saw an interception, the guy on the right saw a touchdown. (See Figure A) The guy on the left then deferred to his colleague and they ruled it a touchdown. It was immediately challenged by the Packers. So the refs went off the field to watch it again and talk about it. Three commercials and 17 replays later, they came back onto the field and ruled it a touchdown. Seahawks win, 14 to 12.
Four days later, on Friday morning, the faculty at my school sat down to watch some very different film. We watched Teachscape videos. Our district is complying with the new teacher evaluation system by using the Charlotte Danielson evaluation model, and we’re using Teachscape to support it. Consequently, we get to spend the majority of our professional development time watching teaching videos and talking about whether the teaching is unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or distinguished.
And let me just say this: there was easily as much disagreement over how to score the teachers as there was over that Seahawks touchdown. Easily. Even though the rubrics are written with clear language, you could watch any of those lessons and find evidence to support two, or sometimes three, different scores. I’d go so far as to say the margin of error is at least one whole level. For every lesson that the “experts” labeled a three, our faculty found evidence that could make it a two or a four. And so on. Not only that, but our principal shared that he and his colleagues had the experience during their trainings.
But while watching teaching videos and arguing about their score might be fun, and while football – at least for most of us – is only a game; getting a formal evaluation from your supervisor is serious business. In other words, it’s all fun and games until someone gets fired.
Which is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Let’s not forget that this evaluation system was essentially conceived as a way to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. It’s evolved into more than that, obviously, but the original intent is still there. At some point, beginning next year, all of us will have to sit down with our principal and find out, based on the preponderance of evidence, whether we’re good enough to keep teaching. And for most of us, based on what I saw last Friday, it could either way. Those of us who are “proficient” could just as easily be “basic.” And vice-versa.
But of course, that’s not what will happen. Most principals; the ones who either don’t have the nerve to place half their staff on a program of improvement, the ones who don’t have the time to defend their evaluations against challenges and appeals, and the ones who simply don’t want to have staff morale crash down around them, will call nearly everyone “proficient.” They’ll give us an overall positive rating, while selecting two or three areas in which they think we could stand the most improvement, and label those “basic,” or maybe even “unsatisfactory.”
And then three things will happen. First of all, those of us in the vast mid-section of that great bell curve that represents teacher performance will move slowly, yet steadily, to the right. (See Figure B) We’ll improve. We’ll focus on one or two areas in which we’re weak, our teaching will get better and our students will learn more. That’s a good thing. Secondly, those teachers who are truly unsatisfactory will either improve rapidly or leave rapidly. That’s an even better thing. But despite these positive outcomes, the critics will howl. Education reformers and newspaper editorial writers will look at all this "profeciency" and complain bitterly that a system with so much potential has been rendered useless by principals afraid to make the tough calls. And while they’re at it, these critics will also find a way to blame the teachers unions. Just because. And while that’s not such a good thing, it’s nevertheless a thing we’ve grown accustomed to. We’ll be fine. In fact, I think we'll be great.
Oh, and about that Seahawks game. Was it a touchdown or was it an interception? Neither. Just moments before “catching” the football, Seahawks receiver Golden Tate shoved a Green Bay defender in the most egregious display of offensive pass interference I’ve ever seen. (See Figure C) Even a “basic” referee would have seen that and thrown a flag. These refs didn’t. These refs were unsatisfactory, and now they’re gone.