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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Haste and Waste???

I attended a day-long conference designed to refine skills of evaluators in collecting evidence during the teacher observation process and interpreting the data according to the rubric employed for the purpose. First, allow me to back up and express my initial concern regarding the state mandate to implement an evaluation system across the state per the provisions embedded in the federally sponsored competitive grant: Race To The Top. Although I do not disdain the goal, I fear the process.

Rather than spend a year training principals to become adept or enhance instructional leadership skills, including the ability to exercise proper and effective evaluation techniques and then unfolding a new system for evaluating teachers the year following, the state has dictated that they occur simultaneously. So, many principals, certainly those least experienced, are developing evaluation skills at the same time that the state has required a high stakes process that begets an expedited process for dismissing teachers. Oh, and the new evaluation system also links learner performance on state tests to the overall assessment of teachers.

Let me propose a potential problem that may emerge from this dynamic. I'm not sure that all principals understand the relationship between their behaviors as instructional leaders and the instructional behaviors they expect and measure in teachers. For example, one of the chief premises expected of teachers is the genuine belief that all learners can experience success in acquiring the skills and concepts we hold as a platform for productive citizens. In short, all kids can learn what we feel is the most valuable cognitive survival skills. Yet, I have been present in enough conversations during coffee breaks and lunch (a valuable forum at conferences) to learn that many principals do not hold such an opinion regarding teachers. That is, there are many who do not subscribe to - "all teachers can teach."
The proviso of course, is that all kids can learn and all teachers can teach given the necessary support, resources (time, training,...) and conditions.

I believe the primary leverage point rests on principals developing and wielding the same instructional skills we expect of teachers. Are faculty meetings and staff development activities viewed by principals as their classroom, with teachers as their learners, or do they drone on delivering administrivia ad nausea? Do they introduce the objective within a context of meaning, value, and relevance, or do they simply make condescending pronouncements? Do they use an effective questioning strategy that will elicit response from teachers that demonstrate their level of understanding, or do they entirely abandon any attempt to check for understanding? Do they actively engage teachers as participants in the learning, or carelessly treat teachers with indifference? Are principals conscious of the need to promote higher level thinking skills among the teachers, or do they assume everyone will simply process the information as intended? Do the same principals who encourage teachers to differentiate instruction for learners treat all teachers the same in the supervision process, no matter their experience or expertise?

This is not an attack on principals. I value the thirty-three years I invested in that very same role, at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. It was a truly rewarding experience. But I feel that we would all be better served if we staged the roll out of this evaluation system differently and equipped principals with the necessary training and support prior to expecting them to implement the evaluation process. As a result of the current mechanisms, principals are adjusting to new evaluation platforms governing their own performance while at the same time learning how to evaluate teachers within a new system. We are perpetrating a disservice upon people who serve a crucial role in the educational equation. Haste in implementing this evaluation system to gain $700,000,000 in the competitive federal grant make very well lead to some waste.

I’m not merely voicing a concern about technique, but also perception and attitude. I get the impression after attending these conferences that some principals unconsciously suffer from the Longfellow Syndrome. As in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous quote, "What you do thunders so loudly I cannot hear what you say." The cognitive dissonance between what we say and what we do undermines one's credibility. I suspect many former college students majoring in education have experienced the irony of professors who lecture on the value of individualized instruction rather than seeking to practice it in their own instructional delivery style. Likewise teachers may be urged to become empowered by educational leaders who callously use the possessive (and paternalistic) term "my teachers" when referring to the instructors they supervise. I recall when the state education department directed all public schools in the early 1990's to adopt shared decision making. Imagine that, mandating cooperation and collaboration, particularly at a time when many schools were operated in a manner that may not have fostered or embodied much of a degree of cooperation among the adults. Mandating shared decision making. Isn't that some odd form of a conceptual oxymoron? And, on that note - conceptual oxymoron’s - I'll end this Blog entry.

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