26 March 2012

The Administration Problem

I recently hosted a former co-worker and current friend who was visiting me here in the Central Valley of California. We took a day to visit Yosemite National Park, played an unbelievable amount of Settlers of Catan, and talked (probably more than rationale humans ever should) about what was wrong in education today. 

This should hardly come as a surprise if you've ever read this blog. This blog has, from the very beginning, complained about education. (On occasion it even offered a solution or two!)

So, as my former co-worker and current friend and I drove down the 405 in Los Angeles today, we were talking about the bane of most educators' lives: the administration. We work in different schools. They could not be more different in culture, location, demographics, or mission. They have basically two things in common: students and administrators. 

As I said at the very beginning of this blog, the students are never the problem, because educators know from the beginning that students are dumb. However, most educators don't realize when they leave the credential programs and student teaching what a massive problem they are about to encounter. 

Job search? Nope, that's something that they'll figure out.

Discipline? They'll figure out what works for them.

Making friends? If they're willing to open their doors, they'll make some. 

The thing that will be the biggest problem for them is the first person they probably met in their interview. Their administrator. 

(please don't think that this is an attack on all administration. I have several dear friends who are administrators. They are great people, and the vast majority of them work VERY hard. I have former co-workers who are now sitting on that side of the desk. It is a thankless job. They are hated by students, parents, and teachers.)

That administrative team isn't going to be a big problem until it comes time for them to perform the task which I think is most important, but which generally gets shuffled to the back burner: the evaluation process.

Let me explain: all of the evidence shows that the best way to improve student learning is to put an effective teacher in a classroom. The best way to make sure that teachers are effective is to evaluate them. However, since administrators have this evaluative role in the vast majority of schools, it generally is problematic. Why?

Well, because administrators tend to have roughly 1000 other duties to take care of. They oversee planning the schedule for next year, meet with parents, schedule and re-schedule sporting events, roam the halls, meet with different, angrier parents, go to LOTS of meetings, supervise lunch, take care of referrals, suspend kids, go to truancy court, meet with community members, and ohbytheway that trash can is on fire..... In short, they have lots of much more pressing things to deal with, and so evaluations get put on the back burner. In my experience, this leads to three things:

First, the evaluations generally aren't very good. I don't mean that they aren't accurate (although I did once get an evaluation supposedly for a class that wasn't even offered at the school), but rather that they don't actually help the teacher get better. In general, the form which is used has a lot of bureaucratic language and some check boxes, and then a space at the bottom where some canned comments relating to whatever emphasis is going on in the classroom can be plopped. These forms are great when someone needs to get fired, or when you have to prove to your supervisors that you have indeed been evaluated, but they aren't very good at actually making a teacher better. My experience has generally been that I look at the form to make sure I'm getting rehired, and then I try to end the meeting on a positive note. There's generally not very much that comes out of an eval that helps me be a better teacher. (Generally. I've had a couple of evals that were really helpful, especially early in my career)

Second, the evaluations don't happen often enough, and become dog-and-pony shows. I'm in my first year at a new school, and received a grand total of two formal evaluations. That's right, they made the decision to re-employ me based on watching me teach twice. (I'm not complaining, or really worrying since I think that I'm pretty awesome, but still). Because I know that my job depends on those two looks at my classroom, I really roll out the dandy show, every single thing I do is something that I know they're looking for. This a function of having the evaluation done by people who have many more pressing duties and of a person who wants to keep their job. If we had more evaluations they would be more accurate looks at what goes on in a classroom on a day when there isn't a scheduled high-stakes inspection.     

Third, since administrators no longer teach (and even when they did teach, they only taught one subject, generally), they generally can't give very good feedback about the class that they observed. Teaching is constantly changing, and people who have stepped away from daily teaching tend to forget that. They often offer suggestions that you think you've already done, or question why you're teaching what you're teaching when you're just following the curriculum that is dictated by the state. 

So, administrators doing evaluations is a problem. How do we solve it? I'm glad you asked, because I happen to have a plan. 

I think that there are two reasonable solutions here. For either of them to work, unions are going to have to move away from their current employment-protection mindset and into a school-improvement mindset and districts are going to have to find a way to employ a couple of extra people per school. Since neither of those things are ever going to happen, let's just sit back and enjoy this as a thought exercise, shall we?

Solution the First - Specialist Evaluators

Take the evaluative power away from school administrators. When they have to do it, they put it on the back-burner and having them as evaluators makes it difficult for teachers to confide about mistakes and to collaborate. (it's a culture of fear problem) In this plan, I would hire two people who's only job would be to observe and evaluate teachers. I would want at least ten observations per year. (If you want to get union-y, let's say 3 announced and 7 drop-ins. Don't like those numbers? Comment with what you want. Or get your own blog.)

One of these evaluators would specialize in sciences, maths, practical arts and phys. ed. The other could do the arts, languages, English, and Social Studies. They would be in enough classrooms, and often enough, that they would still be able to identify with the classroom environment and its challenges. By having ten observations, they could build a dossier on every teacher, so that at the end of the year, I could get a really good evaluation, where they could actually speak to strengths and weaknesses. 

Districts might balk at paying "front-office" money to people who were just doing evals, but in reality, if you made the positions Teacher On Special Assignment positions, you could pay teacher wages, and it would work since they wouldn't need to observe over the summer. Everyone wins!

Solution the Second - Peer Observation Cadres

This solution is much less likely to happen, because it gives teachers power over their peers, and in many cases would lead to them having retention or dismissal discussions with their peers. There's so much privacy at issue here that simply writing that first sentence caused two HR directors to have coronary episodes. But, if we could find a way around the employment and privacy issues, think about how peer observations could work: Take a group of 9 master teachers (or 9 really good teachers, you know what I'm looking for here). Divide them into 3 three-person teams. Give each of them an extra planning hour to fulfill their observation duties in. Let them work as a team to make suggestions and provide feed-back. 

I like this solution less than the first one because it is rife with privacy and scheduling problems, but imagine how powerful it could be if teachers were observing and helping each other to become better teachers. There is no more powerful motivator than peer pressure, and if you knew that 7 times during the year a peer was going to just drop in unannounced and evaluate you, you would up your game. Add in the benefits to the observers of getting to see so many other teachers doing their thing, and I think it's a big winner. 

If I'm honest, I know that these solutions are probably too radical for the powerful forces of culture in education. To really fix this problem, and many of the other problems in education, we have to be willing to thing outside the box. Unions and districts have to give up things they're clinging to in the name of pride and work together to make schools better. It's going to take work, and outside pressure. Perhaps the pressure of school choice and charters (which you may have heard I oppose) will force traditional public schools to reform. 

I'm not holding my breath, but I will keep saying things like this here, and in conversations with my co-workers and friends. Someday, maybe we can create some small change for the better. 

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