Thursday, September 18, 2008

Answering The Question of Bad Teachers: Part One of Infinity

Probably not a good example of the "Benevolent Dictator System" introduced below

About a week ago I threw out one of those eternal koans of public school education: How do we get rid of bad teachers? The responses were many (well, relatively so for Burque Babble) and generally sincere. From them, and pretty much all other discussion on this important, yet seemingly unanswerable question, one might construct one of those continuums that always seem to stick in my head:

union******************************** non-union
byzantine process********************** no process
firing almost impossible*************firing overly easy

The funny thing about such a continuum is that, unlike the typical range of extremes on important issues/concepts (e.g., "Political Left/Right") in which pretty much everybody falls somewhere in the middle, the systemic responses to the question of bad teachers almost invariably lies on one extreme or the other. It's like a light switch: on or off. There is no "middle way" as the Buddhists like to put it.

Several of the ideas brought up by commenters over the last week illuminate why the situation tends toward the extremes instead of a "middle way". Human-based criteria, like peer teacher or students evaluations are problematic because, well, because peer teachers and students are human. More objective measures, such as test scores, are implemented so poorly at present as to be unusable for anything, teacher evaluation included.

So what do we do here? As you might have guessed, I propose a "middle way", one that includes union representation AND a human element that can successfully get rid of bad teachers without a requisite two or three years of constant bureaucratic wrangling.

And, having read way too much Plato as an undergrad, I'm calling it the "Benevolent Dictator System". Basically, I want school principals to have more power in getting rid of bad teachers effectively and efficiently. Really. But to do this we have to change some fundamental aspects of the job description of principals in the public schools. Namely:
  • The casual observer of public schools may not know this, but school principals almost NEVER observe teachers teaching. We're lucky to have one "formal" observation a year.
  • On very rare occasions a principal will drop by our room, but 99% of the time these visits have nothing to do with our classes or what we are doing with our students.
  • Teachers have to drag principals from their daily duties to observe our classrooms when we are doing "fun stuff" that both we and the kids want to show off before our leader.
  • Principals are always reporting that what they miss most is seeing classrooms in actions, kids learning and teachers doing what they do.
All of the above is caused by the fact that every administrative job in the today's public schools is focused on the wrong thing. Today's principals spend far too much of their time on discipline issues. Same with assistant principals. "Instructional Coaches", a position I will have more to speak on down the road, spend all of their time trying to maximize standardized test scores. Counselors spend far too much of their time on scheduling.

So we have an administrative system in which things like "school vision" and teacher evaluation get lost while all these highly trained people do something other than what they are highly trained for. I propose that this stop.

Yes, I realize that the rudderless Titanic that is public education will not be moved by some obscure blogger saying "stop". I also realize that I brought up something called the "Benevolent Dictator System" and haven't explained a damn thing about it.

So let's call this Part I of a ludicrously large, multi-part mind-numbing series of blathering. Like all those koans, the answers are simple, but getting there takes a terribly long time. At least for me.


Amber in Albuquerque said...

Can't wait to read the rest. But...what do you do about getting rid of bad principals? Or principals who wouldn't know good teaching if it bit them.

John Tenny, Ph.D. said...

There is another option - the use of objective, data-based observations. In the Data-Based Observation Model (developed by me), observers gather frequency (counter) or duration (timer) data on best practices, standards/indicators, implementation of a curriculum or behavior plan. Both teachers and/or students can be observed. To make it easy, one can use the eCOVE Classroom Observation Software (also developed by me, but not required to implement the model).

Rather than the observer bias inherently involved in observer judgments about the quality of the classroom behaviors, the objective data can be collaboratively reviewed by the teacher and evaluator, local norms developed, etc. We primarily use the data as part of a professional development process where the data is presented to the teacher with the question "Is this what you thought was happening in your classroom?" Teachers reflect on the data, design changes where indicated, and use follow up data (not someone's opinion) to determine if the change is working. This empowers teachers to become self-directed professionals.

The data can also for a solid, objective basis for decisions about teaching as a career, either by administration or the teacher. Now in use in nearly all the states in the US and 20+ other countries, this approach is rapidly replacing the conflict producing subjective opinions of overworked administrators.

Please visit my blog, Data-Based Classroom Observation for more information. You can download the software at eCOVE Software, and I'm happy to answer any questions.

Peace, John