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Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Solution in Seach of a Problem

I have attended a few meetings recently with fellow superintendents. As an aside to the theme of the particular meeting, the subject of parent requests for teacher and principal ratings, per the mandated procedures embedded within the APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) arises during breaks in the meeting. An informal count is collected from those in the group. The result will likely shock those who drafted and pushed the required parent access through the statutory process and into mandate.

The answer, after nearly three months of school, is a negligible amount, with no district reporting double digit parent requests for teacher and principal rating information, and most either none or less than a handful. It's important to consider that in the four districts represented by superintendents in one such meeting last week, serving a combined 10,000 learners, the district leaders indicated that less than five requests were submitted, with three of those school systems not registering a single request!

The requirement that parents have access to the teacher and principal ratings - borne of a formula factoring in observations scores, with learner performance on state tests and other approved assessments to determine growth and achievement levels - sparked understandable outrage among educators throughout the state. Every district was compelled by the State Department of Education to publicize the rights of parents to access the ratings data.

The possibility that the requested data could in turn be shared publicly by any parent via social media naturally increased anxiety and fear among educators. There was sufficient opportunity to breed humiliation and embarrassment among educators who were not entirely, or even close to being, capable of addressing the multiple issues and baggage (the effect of poverty, abuse at home, mental health concerns...) that children bring into school each day which impact learning. In other words, educators were being evaluated with little influence over these outside factors that infringe upon performance outcomes. Teaching is heuristic, not algorithm based. That is, the act of teaching is experiential and exploratory, it cannot be readily or accurately reduced to a simple protocol like a recipe for a cake. There are too many intervening and unpredictable variables to account for and attend to on a daily basis. Teaching is not an assembly line in which certain tasks can be programmed and rendered repetitive to insure a standard level of quality among the products. The margin of error in the teaching and learning process prohibits the effective employment of a script without variance, spontaneity, professional discretion, and creativity.

The virtual absence of requests (has the state endeavored to collect information from each district on the number of parent requests???) begs the question - who exactly wanted the release of the rating data, and what was their motive? It certainly was not prompted by parents concerned about the performance levels of the teachers and principals responsible for the education of their children. I was unaware of any parent advocacy group who cried out for this trigger mechanism to be included with any legislation. There were no media reports indicating parent speculation about teacher and principal performance. This was clearly an example of a solution in search of a problem - or an errant belief among policy-makers that the prospect of being humiliated in public would motivate educators to increase achievement standards.

Let's look at what noted educational expert Michael Fullan (and for that matter, nearly any and every psychologist or researcher one would encounter in a freshmen college class in psychology) has to say about fear as a motivator.

Fullan, on pages 60 - 63 of The Six Secrets of Change:

"Moral certitude and raw fear are terrible change agents."

Citing a work by Pfeffer and Sutton, 2000) "One of these barriers (to bridging the knowing-doing gap) is the fact that fear prevents acting on knowledge. They found that organizations that were weak on generating and using knowledge had an atmosphere of fear and distrust" (that might be an apt descriptor of the emotional distance between political policy-makers in Albany and professional educators in the field)

"Negative monitoring does not work."

"Fear causes a focus on the short term."

"When the environment turns nasty, people focus on self-preservation."

"Using well respected and validated measures of literacy and mathematics achievement for fifteen- year-olds, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, (which monitors the economic and social policies of the thirty-two richest nations in the world) found that the United States ranked twenty-second, compared to Finland, the Netherlands, and Canada, all of which rank in the top five and have non-punitive assessment policies." (I added the boldface for emphasis)

My interpretation for the miniscule percentage of parents who exercised their right to evolves from an interesting study that best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell shared in his book, Blink, (page 40).

Gladwell describes the desire that insurance companies had to gain insight into the factors that are correlated to malpractice claims filed against doctors. Of course, the insurance companies did not want to insure doctors who were likely to induce litigation for malpractice any more than insurance companies want to insure terrible drivers with a history of reckless driving. The first step was to compile a database of doctors and measureable factors such as the college/medical school they attended, their academic rank in college/medical school, their years of experience and so forth. The resulting comparative analysis did not yield any predictors. There were no correlates among the evidence.

That prompted a more intensive investigation. With doctor approval, researchers followed the doctors along the course of their daily interactions with patients. After a closer examination of these doctor and patient engagements, they eventually discovered the leverage point in the decision making process. In short, it amounted to what is commonly referred to as "bedside manners" of the physician. That's right, the critical point rested on whether the attending doctor was condescending, looked at their watch during a conversation with the patient, showed empathy, extended accommodations, sustained eye contact, evidenced a sense of humor and humility, and other social factors - not necessarily medical practices. In fact, Gladwell refers to an incident in which a female patient's lawyer, during the course of a discussion about her desire to sue a doctor for malpractice, explained to her that the mistake was not made by Doctor A who she wanted to sue, but rather Doctor B who had escaped her fury and legal threat. Her response - but Doctor B was nice to me and Doctor A wasn't!

There is no question that parents want academic success for their children. That should be a safe assumption. However, the question is where that desire ranks in the prioritization of factors involved in the complicated equation within the dynamics of teacher/principal engagement with learners. I suspect, following Maslow's extensive work on Hierarchy of Needs that proclaims that safety, security, and acceptance are prerequisites for the later needs associated with achievement, that parents first want to be sure that the teacher consistently displays care and compassion in the classroom.

Such an explanation would reinforce one of my favorite quotations (one that sadly I cannot attribute to anyone despite exhausting searched via internet search engines):

"People don't care about how much you know, until they know how much you care."

After all, was the financial, emotional, political, and psychological cost of this entire process of accountability of educators worth the findings that emerged from even a cursory examination of the outcomes – that an infinitesimally small percentage of educators were identified as ineffective? Did we have to inflict this grueling process on everyone just to find that out?   

Now, the only thing that's left in this vexing issue of publicly exposing teacher and principal performance is finding out how much policy-makers care, and how much they really know.

Perhaps we should have a rubric to measure the performance of policy-makers.

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