I’m a life-long fan of the New York football Giants. We’ve had season tickets in my family since 1963 when my dad and my uncle bought a pair of tickets to see them play at Yankee Stadium. My brothers and I grew up taking the subway to games with my dad to watch the Giants lose every other week to one or another NFC rival (usually the Redskins). But I try not to let my football passion get in the way of spending time with my family on a Sunday. Like many other fans, instead of watching games live, I DVR the game and watch it later. Problem is, it’s hard to avoid somebody telling you the score before you’ve had a chance to watch the game. I try to impose a media blackout on my friends and family but often the score finds you in the least likely places. Cab drivers, priests, store clerks, dry cleaners… am I the ONLY one who taped the game!? It’s difficult to enjoy the game when you already know the score. In fact, when I know the final score, I rarely bother to watch it.
This has me thinking about the latest iteration of the plan for evaluation of teachers in New York State, Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Here’s an oversimplified explanation of APPR. Each school district adopted a research-based rubric that is used as a criteria to provide teachers with feedback on their performance during formal observations. An administrator, the observer, visits the teacher a designated number of times (usually two for tenured teachers) and highlights indicators on the rubric for teaching elements in the standard in one of four rated categories: highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective (HEDI). The administrator notes evidence to support the ratings. Ideally this is a supportive process, a conversation between two professionals who are knowledgeable about teaching and learning.This year, a small but significant change was made to the regulations that is a potential game-changer, and not in the good way! In past years, observations were not scored, there was no number attached to these performance levels or to the final observation. Elements were highlighted: ineffective – developing – effective – highly effective; but there was no number attached. Commencing this year every teacher observation receives a score between 1-4. So each of these individual elements is assigned a number (not all elements must receive a score, some may be “not observed”) and these are added up and averaged to arrive at a score for each formal observation. Essentially, every formal observation is reduced to a number between 1-4. So a lesson could be rated a 2.73, 3.47, 3.97, or even a 4.0.
This is a problem for several reasons:
- Scores are reductive. The complexity of learning (and teaching) cannot be reduced to a single number. Teaching is an art, and a science. The teaching and learning process should not be reduced to a number. Numbers oversimplify. Nobody wants to be reduced to a number. When I get dressed for work, I might ask my wife how I look in my suit, but I don’t want her to rate me with a number between 1-4 (and vice versa).
- Scores interfere with innovation. Think about sports, teams play more conservatively when they are protecting a lead. If I know I’m getting a score, I’m going to stick with my strengths and avoid taking risks, after all, “I gotta get a 4!”
- Scores denote competition, winning and losing. Learning is not about competition. I want to get better; I want everyone around me to always become better. That’s what learning means, we acquire new knowledge and skills and we become better. Teachers shouldn’t find themselves thinking about whether or not their score is higher or lower than the score of the teacher in the room next to them. We should all be rowing with the same set of oars in the same direction.
The challenge for school leaders in this system is to forge relationships with teachers in which there is a path that leads to everyone getting better. I am not certain whether this will occur through the APPR process or in spite of it, but I am confident that leaders and staff who are committed to what’s best for kids will find a way.