What prompted this post was my discovery that only 15 of the 714 Chinese drug factories get inspected every year. On average, foreign medical factories that bring products to the US are inspected once every 13 years. Our 300+ ports receive 18.2 million shipments of drugs, cosmetics, food and devices a year, and the Food and Drug Administration has only about 450 inspectors. Do the math!!
That got me thinking about teachers and how they are ‘inspected.’ For a few months now I have been corresponding with teachers I know. Here’s what they told me, with a few of my own thoughts stuck in here and there.
In the old days, teachers closed their doors and did their thing, for better or for worse. As long as things were quiet, administrators rather bothered to open the door to see what was going on, and teachers never watched each other at work. That’s changing, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. In some schools today, teachers are actually expected to watch their peers teach, after which they share their analysis. In other schools, however, principals armed with lists sit in the back of the class checking off ‘behaviors’ and later give the teacher a ‘scorecard’ with her ‘batting average.’
No Child Left Behind was supposed to close what is called ‘the achievement gap’ by forcing schools to pay attention to all children. Unfortunately, the gaps persist: Only 14% of Blacks and 17% of Latino 4th graders are proficient in reading, compared to their Asian American (45%) and White (42%) counterparts on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. NCLB’s critics claim that the law has narrowed the curriculum to a single-minded focus on reading and math, eliminated programs for the gifted, and turned schools into ‘drill and kill’ factories, and those claims are, in some places, supported by facts.
NCLB’s biggest change may be in teaching itself. For better and sometimes for worse, what teachers used to do behind closed doors is now scrutinized, often on a daily basis. That is, someone, often the principal, drops in regularly to watch the teacher at work. Whether these observations are diagnostic in nature and therefore designed to help teachers improve or a ‘gotcha’ game is the essential question. The answer seems to vary from school to school.
What were ‘the good old days’ like? Linda Darling Hammond, the Stanford professor who began as a high school teacher in 1974, was left completely alone. “I was never observed at all during my first year, not once,” she told me. My situation was similar. In my first year of as a high school English teacher in the mid 1960’s, I taught 900 classes–5 classes a day for 180 days–and remember being observed only three times.
Other veterans have similar memories. Nicki Smith began teaching second grade in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1962. “I don’t remember ever being observed by my principal,” she said. As a teaching intern in Newton the previous year, she recalls her Harvard supervisor dropping by “infrequently on Friday afternoons,” while the principal never showed up.
George Wood, now a principal in Ohio, started as an 8th grade teacher in Lake Orion, Michigan, in 1975. He remembers being observed just once his first year by the principal. “His only advice was to post my assignments on the chalkboard on a daily basis. No other teacher or administrator observed me,” Mr. Wood recalls.
Anthony Cody began his teaching career in 1987 in Oakland. Trained to teach science, Mr. Cody was assigned to teach Spanish, English and Earth Science. “I do not believe I was observed that first year at all,” he said, and he remembers that just one administrator came in to watch him during his second year, after which he was granted tenure.
Esther Wojcicki, a journalism teacher in Palo Alto, California, began teaching in Berkeley in 1963. “I was observed three times my first year usually by the department chair. The observations were not helpful, just stressful,” she recalls.
David Cohen also teaches in Palo Alto:
In my first California public school job, over in Fremont, I was observed once or twice a year by principals with science backgrounds (I’m an English teacher). They praised my lesson plans and materials, though sometimes without fully recognizing or appreciating what I had in mind; they saw that I controlled the classroom, but did little to engage me in questions/reflections about my instructional choices or goals for improvement.
Curtis Johnson, one of the co-authors of Disrupting Class, began teaching in 1965 in San Marcos, Texas. He remembers that President Lyndon Johnson, himself a former teacher in Texas, visited the school to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), but, he adds, “No administrators ever visited my classroom. They assumed that if we weren’t doing what we should, they would hear about it. And I think they would.”
That’s how the system worked: you closed your door and ran things your way. As long as the noise didn’t disrupt anyone else, you were assumed to be doing your job.
As for me, I remember being observed a few times by my high school principal in Port Washington, New York. After sitting in on a lively class discussion of Macbeth, he suggested that, if I used the bathroom before class, I wouldn’t have to move around so much!
What about today? Observations are still mandatory in most districts, with the number and procedures often spelled out in union contracts. These rules may be honored in the breach, of course, as in the past. What matters most is whether observations are useful. My non-scientific sample suggests that the observation process is changing for the better in some places, but that, unfortunately, it’s still mostly useless.
Eric Scroggins began teaching in a middle school in the Bronx in 2001. “I taught five classes of science to 35-38 eighth graders,” he told me. “Other teachers, primarily other Teach For America corps members, observed me with some frequency (and I them), but I remember being observed formally only once by my assistant principal, although my principal peeked in every so often in the beginning.” Mr. Scroggins now works for Teach for America in San Francisco.
Colleston Morgan, who just finished a 2-year stint with TFA in New Orleans, remembers several ‘drive by, drop-in’ observations during his first year. “My assistant principal may have formally observed me once, as part of the retention process for first-year teachers, though that had more of the feel of a formality than anything else,” he recalls.
Chris Krook-Magnuson began teaching math at Coolidge High School in Washington, DC in 2005. “I was observed two times by an administrator my first year and did not receive useful feedback, just a checklist of what I was supposed to have posted in the room and on the board. I was supposed to be observed by my American University Mentor (as part of my M.A.T.), but I never saw her that entire year.”
Kenneth Bernstein is a veteran in Maryland who changed careers to become a teacher. He wrote, in part:
I have found most of the formal observations about my teaching of little value to me. One year an assistant principal (who did NOT last beyond that one year in our school) insisted that my lesson be a formal Directed Teaching Activity, a la Madeline Hunter. The day before I was to be observed, I told my class that I was going to teach in a different way, just so they wouldn’t be surprised. At the end of that prep day, my students asked why a lesson had to be that boring! I am suspicious of anything that attempts to force conformity too strictly upon either teachers or students.
I have served as a department chair and observed other teachers. I have as a peer observed fellows and served as a coach. I am on my fourth student teacher, which means I do observations. If the purpose of the observation is merely to fulfill a legal requirement, it is a waste of time. If the purpose is to provide some feedback to the teacher, and thus help improve instruction, it is often best done by those with no authority over the one being observed. And if all teachers were trained how to observe and give feedback, the mere act of observing another teacher would help improve one’s own teaching practice.
Deena Bar Lev, a Maryland veteran teacher, wrote in part,
I am not disturbed by how frequent observations are, only how useless they have become. Our school system requires administrators to undergo a rigorous training program called Observing and Analyzing Teaching, part of the Studying Skillful Teaching franchise. Sadly, this process has virtually homogenized and sterilized the entire observation experience by requiring that the observer transcribe word for word what the teacher SAYS (“scripting”), leaving them little opportunity to even look up from their paper, and all but prohibiting them from noting all the REAL magic that goes on while teaching–the savvy proximal cues, subtle facial expressions, and animated gestures of the teacher—not to mention everything that is going on with the kids! The resulting “transcript” reads like Weber Gas Grill assembly instructions.
Heather Wolpert-Gawron began her public school teaching in Berkeley, California in 2001.
My classroom had no textbooks, there were at least 6 home languages represented in my room alone, and broken windows lined the halls. But each kid had my phone number and used it regularly for homework help. I paid for all of my supplies and began my self-funded classroom library, certain that this was an important step in student literacy. I’m sure almost every teacher has that same story at some time in his or her career. (But picture my first teaching gig, the morning of 9/11, and we didn’t even have a map in the school to show the kids where New York was.). Despite all of the challenges, during the time I was there, I don’t recall ever being observed formally by an administrator.
Donalyn Miller began teaching in Texas in 2002 and recalls,
… during my first year of teaching, both the assistant principal and principal checked on me regularly the first few weeks. After they figured out I was not clueless or dangerous, they did not stop by room other than to administer the mandatory three evaluations that Texas requires: two surprise walk-throughs and one formal 45 minute evaluation. No teachers watched me that year.
That has changed. I have had teachers watch me several times a year over the past few years.
Want some optimism?
Bill Ferriter is a North Carolina veteran teacher who says, “Things have changed some in the past 16 years. I know that new teachers today—at least at our school—are observed once or twice by their mentor in addition to any observations done by administrators. I also know that many schools make time for new teachers to get out of the classroom and observe other teachers in action. It’s not a required practice or a practice done by every school, but most principals see the value in finding release time for new teachers to do that.”
Ferriter reports that his state requires administrators to use what he calls a ‘brilliant’ evaluation instrument that requires the observer and the teacher to have meaningful conversations that could improve teaching.
Problem is principals—-including accomplished principals—-hate the instrument because the amount of time to have the conversations is going to multiply their already jammed daily calendars. That’s going to mean one of two things: Either good principals kill themselves to do meaningful observations or the new instrument leads to no change in the way teachers receive feedback.
One principal told me that he’d love the new instrument if he didn’t have to spend 3 hours supervising the lunchroom each day. However, he loves supervising the lunchroom because it’s the only interaction that he has with the kids of his building, outside of discipline.
Until we rethink the role of the principal—the time they’re provided, the tasks they’re responsible for, the professional development they’re exposed to—-conversations about observations and evaluation are kind of pointless.
To wrap this up, that’s over a dozen teachers sharing their ideas and frustrations and highlighting two simultaneous problems–lack of evaluation and ineffective evaluation. Given that we seem to be moving inexorably toward some form of merit pay, how thoughtfully teachers are evaluated matters more than ever. And that means that we have to decide who does the evaluating and make sure they are prepared for the job.
What do you think? Are you a teacher who has (or hasn’t) been evaluated? How’d you find the process? What would you change? Share your stories in the comments section.
Maybe together we can figure out a way to do better than the FDA!