The History Channel recently ran a series called Your Bleeped-Up Brain, and if you can get past that staggeringly stupid title, there are some interesting tidbits to be found about how our minds work.
In particular, I caught a snip the other day about how humans define "truth." The main salient points: first, we are wired to believe the first information we see, hear, or learn; second, it is incredibly difficult for us to unlearn that "first" and replace it with new information. This is essentially the "primacy effect," where we are inherently more apt to trust, accept, and maintain belief in the first thing we hear or read. Add this as well: we are far more apt to believe information that confirms feelings we already hold, regardless of the veracity or validity--or even logic--of that information.
I have been fighting a slow and constant battle within my district to help implement our new evaluation system (TPEP, though I hate acronyms) and empower teachers to understand and use the framework not just when thinking about their performance review but moreso when thinking about their own practice. In our district of roughly 400 certificated staff, it is obviously difficult to communicate to everyone in a personal, meaningful, and clear way. It is also a challenge to accurately and authentically monitor what they really do and don't understand.
Because we are human beings, we often look to one another first for information, before digging into things such as legalese about what is actually policy. The clear problem with this? It is easier to chat in the staff room and spread hearsay than to actually look it up. Sadly, we're then more likely to use unsubstantiated hearsay as the foundation for our feelings and opinions--and then refuse to accept new information when confronted with fact that contradicts what we thought we knew.
Case in point: recently I was told that it states unequivocally in the state RCWs that teachers are required to compile an eight-section portfolio of evidence to support their performance on each of the eight state evaluation criteria (and in areas of focus, cross-referenced with framework elements). I know the law, and it states absolutely nothing that could even be stretched to construe such a directive. Yet, this colleague of mine was certain she was right and I was wrong. Why? She heard it from a friend who teaches in another district.
Now, this whole interaction was far less confrontational or negative than it might come across. It was actually a very civil and collegial conversation, but it culminated with us sitting at a computer screen combing through every section of RCW, WAC, ESSB and state rule that we could find looking for the supposed mandate.
Of course, such a statewide portfolio directive was no where to be found... because it isn't there, it isn't true, and it isn't real.
But people heard it somewhere, so they think it must be true. Sadly, even after all this, my colleague still said "I don't know, it just seems like we will still be required to make portfolios." Even when shown the letter of the law, the seems like planted by that "first" impression lingers.
Here is the fact: there are certain elements of our evaluation system which are dictated by the state. The use of the criteria, the focused and comprehensive cycles, the definition of student growth as a change in student achievement between two or more points in time, and the necessity for relevant student growth data to constitute a substantial part of a teacher's evaluation in at least three of the eight criteria--just to name a few.
On the flip side, there are myriad aspects of this system which are deliberately not dictated by the state and which are therefore at the discretion of the local district. The choice of instructional framework; what assessments to be used for monitoring student growth (the law permits classroom, district, or state-based assessment tools); how districts expect their teachers to demonstrate "proficiency" toward statewide common framework standards and scales...these, among others, are district choices.
So my colleague? Her friend in another district was responding to a district-level decision that (perhaps? I'd have to see the actual policy) mandated teachers to build evaluation portfolios. To me, that is a ridiculous approach, but oh well, thank goodness my district knows better.
Like a good teacher who recognizes that into her classroom will walk 30 kids with 30 different personalities and 30 distinctly different needs, the state has recognized that districts too have different needs. By not throwing a blanket of micromanagement mandate on everyone--and by instead leaving room for district decisions--the law permits differentiation. The end goal or standard is the same, just as in our classrooms, but the manner in which districts implement to help teachers achieve that goal will by necessity look different in Seattle than in Sequim, and different in Waitsburg than in Wenatchee.
Differentiation is uncomfortable, because it reveals the reality of the gray area. It reveals that someone is smart enough to recognize that equal and fair are not the same thing. It is no different from the discomfort some students express when I expect a five paragraph essay from most but permit some of my struggling kids to shoot for four instead. It'd be easier to just hold to the number, but that's not what I actually care about, nor what I want them to care about either. Equal? No. Fair? If it weren't, I wouldn't do it.
We need to make sure that our opinions and judgments are not built upon myth and misunderstanding. The trouble is that myth and misunderstanding, to be successful, have to look just like facts. In this case though, the facts can be found because we're talking about rules, laws, and written policy.
If nothing else, start here:
And know that everything beyond those sites is interpretation and opinion, and therefore bears the potential for conveyance of myth. Even this post fits into that domain. The key is: if you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with interpretation, opinion, or potential myth, dig past it to find what the law actually says.