Proponent of Teacher Obsolescence Theory Becomes Obsolete

Renart_illuminationExbox, SD—Nicole Intendo, professor of education at Avante University, received notice on Wednesday that she would no longer be needed in the classroom. Instead of taking her classes, students would spend the the time playing video games.

Intendo works relentlessly to propagate the theory that traditional classroom teaching (narrowly defined) has become obsolete in the wake of educational technologies. According to sources, Avante University has enthusiastically decided to apply her ideas.

“That is insulting, preposterous, and un-research-based,” said Intendo. “Research has shown that classroom teachers in kindergarten through high school have become relics of the past. But in college and graduate school, it’s an entirely different matter. We need to shape the wants of aspiring professionals. Too many young people enter our education program with fantasies of standing in front of the room and presenting something fascinating about a subject. We have to combat their outdated sense of purpose.”

According to Intendo, research has shown that all aspiring teachers are essentially “industrial and hierarchical” in motivation. They want to teach the students something they don’t already know.  Video games, by contrast, are entirely interactive; you can’t get through the game unless you are actively playing. Therefore, says Intendo, it is essential that she disseminate the research as often and as widely as possible—through classroom lectures, TED talks, radio interviews, and pocket-size bullet points—so that the American public at large will be exposed to the facts.

“If I lose my position,” she said, fighting back tears, “there will still be kids in Boston or Dallas who have to sit and listen to a teacher talk about how to solve an algebraic equation or how a sonnet is structured or how World War II came about. Why should they have to suffer through that? All that information is on Wikipedia. What they really need is a screen, keyboard, and challenge, all tailored to them. It’s so obvious, once you look at the research—but it takes me about two years to get this across to any given student.”

Asked how teachers could possibly be evaluated accurately in a class driven by video games, Intendo pointed at a bar chart on the wall. “Teachers are all-important,” she said. “Everything they do impacts a student’s future outcomes. See that graph? It shows a teacher’s direct effect on future earnings, down to the dollar. This is why they have to accept their new roles and step out of the way.”

Intendo’s students have questioned her conclusions. “I think she’s comparing apples to Apples,” said one, who requested anonymity. “I enjoy video games, but they don’t belong everywhere. I’m taking a great class on Chaucer and Cervantes right now. Is there a video game for this?” He quoted from the text:

This Chauntecleer his winges gan to bete,
As man that coude his tresoun nat espye,
So was he ravissed with his flaterye.

“What are we supposed to do—play a game where we’re the rooster trying not to be killed by the fox?” he taunted. “Oh, and maybe sprinkle in some word challenges, like ‘ravissed’ and ‘Chauntecleer’?  I’d rather take the course, thanks, and play my favorite games in my own time.”

“My favorite high school classes had teachers who actually taught us stuff,” said another. “In music theory class, the teacher taught us harmony and counterpoint.  She made it really interesting, with examples from different kinds of music. She got us to notice things. Then for homework she had us do exercises and compose pieces. That’s the kind of teacher I hoped to be.”

“That just proves my point,” said Intendo. “As you can see from these comments, new teachers imagine themselves at the front of the room. They have some favorite teacher who set the example for them in that way. But they have to get weaned off their own experiences and start looking at data. They absolutely need me for that.”

Intendo, who gave a TEDTalk about the future of education, believes that education professors, when they lecture, should do so in TED style. “I don’t lecture all the time,” she said, “but when I do, I practice every move in advance, so that I project total confidence. I make my multimedia effects really grabbing. I keep the ideas simple so the students have a takeaway. I bring emotions into the picture. I even share a little about myself. My point is not to fill their heads with useless information but to convey the most essential data in about 20 minutes.” The rest of the time, she said, was devoted to “turn-and-talk” activities, where students would come to a “scholarly consensus” about what had been said. At the end of the lesson, they would fill out a two-column chart with the headings “I used to think” and “But now I know.”

“My classes are revolutionary, if I may say so myself,” she said. “It occurred to me the other day that I am changing the face of teaching and learning. I have to keep this up. If Avante gets its way, we will slide right back into the status quo.”

“Measure Every Teacher Now!” Shouts District

thermometerNew Gaffe, NY—In its rush to get all teachers measured, the New Gaffe School District has ordered its schools to use any standardized measures at all, even if they bear no relation to the subject being taught.

“The point is to launch the new system and fire the bottom five percent of teachers,” said district chancellor Mark Islip. “We can’t waste time here. If we wait, the status quo will come sliding back down on us, like… a landslide. We’ve got to get the reform rolling. We can tinker with it later.”

According to the new directives, teachers of untested subjects may choose from an array of approved measures. One option is to take the students’ temperatures at the beginning and end of the year. “The September temperature, that’s your baseline,” said Islip. Then your June temperature may be higher, or lower, or the same. If it’s higher, it may mean there’s higher engagement in the class, or it may mean there’s a flu going around. We’ll take it as growth, in any case.”

Another option for such teachers is to use the English language arts test as a baseline and the mathematics test as a final exam. “Hey, you never know,” said Sandy Sullivan, a Reform Implementation Consultant (RIC). “The progress from ELA to math may be substantial. Music teachers might even get a boost.” When asked what “progress” from ELA to math would mean, Sullivan shrugged her shoulders. “We have to stay open-minded,” she said. “It could mean something.”

Not only teachers of untested subjects, but teachers of subjects such as chemistry and physics (which aren’t typically taught over multiple years) must use a baseline outside of the subject. “How can you have a baseline in physics, when the students don’t know any physics yet?” asked George Metropoulos, a physics teacher who, by virtue of being a teacher, clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “This whole thing needs reconsideration.” Metropoulos was given three options for a baseline: the previous year’s social studies test, the third-grade reading test, or the number of sit-ups each students could complete per minute, timed under officially approved conditions.

“We’re dealing with a lot of nitpickiness and frustration,” replied Toby Winnow, an instructional coach who reportedly had “worked with” Metropoulos until the latter balked. “Clearly the baseline is going to make more sense for some teachers than for others, but in the end it makes sense for everyone. Think of it this way. The kids come in with knowledge of something. You add knowledge of something else. Subtract that something from the something else, and there’s your value-added, after it’s gone through a state-of-the-art formula. Simple as that.”

What if the new measurement system results in the firing of good teachers? “Oh, please,” said Islip. “At this point, we could fire teachers blindly and end up much better off than we are now. Research has shown that if you fire any five percent of the teachers, you will raise achievement by half of a standard deviation, and increase students’ lifetime earnings by precisely $124,932.56.”

Which research has shown this? “It was on a slideshow at the last superintendents’ meeting,” Islip replied. “Those slides are top-notch, prepared by the best in the field.”

“I don’t see how any of this makes sense,” said Ariane Tort, a tenth grader. “First of all, I don’t want any of my teachers fired. Second, I’m really good at sit-ups, so that means less ‘growth’ for my teachers. Should I slow down my sit-ups so they get more growth points?”

“Do whatever feels right for you,” said Winnow. “Remember, this has nothing to do with you. It’s all about the teachers. I know it’s painful to see them fired, especially if you like them, but change is always painful, if you know what I mean.” He paused for a minute. “It’s painful even if you don’t know what I mean. Even if I myself don’t know what I mean, or no one knows what anyone means. In fact, that last scenario might be the most painful scenario of all, or the least painful. Wow, I’ve gotten philosophical,” he mused. “I wonder how philosophy would be measured. The possibilities are endless. That’s the wonder of the new system. So much room for innovation here. We could even give the kids a typing test.”

District Gives Students Teacher-Rating Gadgets

Benchmark, OH—In order to facilitate the accumulation of teacher data and to entice students into 21st-century technology use, Benchmark Unified School District has given out 35,000 teacher evaluation gadgets, equipped with skin conductance bracelets, to students in grades K-12. The leveled, adaptive software provides a user-friendly interface for real-time evaluation of teachers while the lesson is in progress.

“Nothing could be a greater boon for us right now,” said Superintendent Bret Elony, who recently signed a multi-million-dollar contract with Quicker Data, Inc., the creator of the software. “We need to know what kids think, but a great deal of the time, they’ve forgotten the lesson as soon as it’s over. So what could be better than to have a way for them to rate it on the spot?”

The software provides students with a series of animated “prompts” followed by multiple-choice (usually yes-or-no) answers. For instance, at the start of the lesson, a young character of adjustable race pops up and asks, “Is the aim on the board?” After the student responds with “yes” or “no,” a tiger or other animal (adapted to the student’s preferences) appears and asks: “Do you understand exactly what you are expected to learn today?” and then: “How close is this to what you want to be learning?”

The next questions pertain to the teacher’s appearance and organization: “Does the teacher have her papers in order? Does she have efficient routines for collection and distribution of student work?” The next questions have to do with the minilesson: “Are you happy with the length of the minilesson? Were you bored or confused at any point? Did the teacher provide you with enough information for your group work task?” (If there is no group work task, the student must select “n/a,” which will automatically trigger an administrator visit.

Over the course of the lesson, the skin conductance bracelet sends signals to the software, which translates them into “engagement” levels. “We didn’t want students to have to rate their own engagement while they were being engaged, or not,” said Elony. “That could get confusing.” If the overall engagement goes below a certain level, a red light goes on at the front of the room; if the engagement level is high, a green light goes on. An administrator passing by can easily spot these lights.

During the group work portion of the lesson, the animated characters (now butterflies and birds) ask questions such as, “Is the teacher moving around the room to help the various groups? Do you have the materials you need to complete your task? If you want to change your grouping, do you feel comfortable taking the initiative?

“I find this incredibly distracting,” complained Hecate Loomis, an eighth grader. “How am I supposed to get anything out of the lesson if I have to rate it every few seconds?” She was swiftly booed by a few others, who said they liked the software precisely for that reason.

“Class is a lot less boring now,” said her classmate Bob Tull. “Plus, for every three evaluations we complete, we get a free video game. I have better video games at home, but this is cool because I can play it during lunch.”

“And we’re generating data,” piped in Abby Lombardo. “We’ve been told that the more data we generate, the more we’ll be able to customize our own world.”

“That’s exactly the spirit,” affirmed a representative of Quicker Data, Inc. “While the main goal is to rate teachers swiftly, we’re all about customization. We’re helping to build a world where kids like everything they’re doing, all the time, where adults like their jobs, and where work gets done efficiently and pleasantly, with the help of pleasant cartoons.” Of course, he added, some teachers, students, and workers do not fit in with such a world; the software helps identify and remove them.

A few teachers have tried in vain to outwit the gadgets. One teacher rewired the lights at the front of the room so that the green light would always shine. A hidden camera filmed her in the act. Another teacher told her students to turn off the devices; she was fined (over ten thousand dollars, according to rumor) by both the school district and Quicker Data, Inc. Still others wrote letters of protest to the district; the superintendent’s reply reminded them that they needed to be open to change.

“This really is all about change, basically speaking” said Elony proudly. “We’re moving into a world where there isn’t time to think, where studies of the humanities and liberal arts are merely holding us back. We can’t keep holding onto the slow stuff. We need to get with it. Speaking of which, I know you have a lot of questions, but I’ve resolved ahead of time not to answer them. I have too much to do. Another contract is waiting to be signed.” He strode out of the room. Our questions (impostor ghosts) stayed behind; even after we left, they hung in waiting for a more inquisitive era.

Beware of Teachers Who Mesmerize

hypnosisFlatflower, NY—In a closed meeting on Saturday morning, District Superintendent Clautha Binhorn warned principals about teachers who  mesmerized not only their own students, but their evaluators. “There are more of them than you think,” she said, “and for that reason I urge you to keep your classroom observations short and to the point. Don’t get caught up in pre-observation conferences and that sort of thing, because that’s where the trickery festers.”

According to recent studies, teachers who met with principals before the observation received significantly higher ratings than those who did not. “This shows that the teachers put you under a spell,” said Binhorn. “They show you their lesson plan and start to explain it in sweet tones. They sound like they know what they’re talking about. Before you know it, you’ve been hoodwinked. You think you’re about to see a good lesson. Then, when you enter the classroom, you’re still possessed.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Reginald Stark, principal of Flatflower’s distinguished High School for Learning. “I’ve seen some lesson plans that raised questions in my mind. I’ve even seen a few that struck me as quite bad.”

“And then what did you do?” probed Binhorn. “I bet you gave the teacher a chance to improve, right? That’s all part of the trick. She comes to you with a better lesson plan, and you say, ‘wow, that’s much better.’ That’s where the trance begins.”

Binhorn then played a video of a mesmerized principal who watches a chaotic lesson (with chairs flying) and then walks dreamily to her office to type up a glowing evaluation and a rating of “highly effective.” “You see!” declared Binhorn proudly. “She isn’t in her right mind.” The next part of the video showed a flashback of the pre-observation conference, with the teacher saying, over and over, “this is a high-level geometry lesson, this is a high-level geometry lesson.”

“Who’s the principal in that video?” asked one of the participants.

“Oh, we hired someone for the film. We decided not to put a real principal on the spot. It might not go over too well with her staff. But you see the point, don’t you? We must not tolerate such conniving.”

Asked what could be done about these trance-inducing teachers, Binhorn started up her “action plan” slideshow. “The ideal solution,” she began, “would be simply to get rid of all teachers. Wouldn’t that be a dream! Then student achievement would finally rise to its natural heights. But that isn’t going to happen overnight. What we can do, though, is sharpen our own end of the proverbial pencil. Let them know we’re on to them. Short, snappy observations. Quick ratings. No explanations. No compromise. Ineffective, ineffective, ineffective!” Binhorn seemed on the brink of ecstatic abandon.

“And then what?”

“Well, we get rid of them one by one, until only the super-teachers remain. There’ll be a few of those. They won’t last long, though. They’ll find an easier job somewhere. Look at me! I’m not a teacher, and let me tell you, I wouldn’t be one today.”

“This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me…” began Ellen Kedem, a principal known for her gentleness and wisdom (a word hardly spoken in Flatflower).

“It doesn’t have to make sense. Just look at the action plan and repeat after me. The first step is to remove your blinders! Get out your binders!”

“Remove your blinders! Get out your binders!” some of the principals chanted. Others stayed silent.

“The next step is to see things for what they are! Stop wishing upon a star!”

The same few principals chanted in response.

“The next step is to give reality a rating! Without waiting, without waiting!”

“Give reality a rating!” they shrieked.

“And now, all together, what is that rating? What rating has reality earned?”

“Ineffective! Ineffective! Ineffective!” Here the chorus grew, with some facetious tones mixed in.

Binhorn displayed her last slide. “There you have it,” she said, nodding approvingly at her disciples. “This is what we call the science of management. It doesn’t go for rhetoric. It sticks with the data. It assigns a number to that data, and translates that number into a word, which, as you said, is ‘ineffective,’ more often than not.”

“And here I was thinking I had seen some good lessons this year,” sighed a principal.

“The important thing,” replied Binhorn, “is that you have now rejected that illusion. You will leave this room immune to spells, trances, and other tricks. But before you leave, I have one more chant for us to say together.”

Gathering up their things, the principals waited for her next word.

“We’re here for success, not deceitfulness! Woot woot woot!”

A few principals mumbled the words grudgingly.

“No, for this activity, we’re going to use the Everybody Does It rule. Everybody now. This is your exit slip.”

The room chanted in unison. Upon leaving, each principal received a teddy bear and a copy of the rubric. The superintendent rated the session “highly effective”; after all, it had resulted in a universal chant.

The Low-Inference Room

seatbeltOne Tuesday morning in June, a cohort of one hundred novice principals was escorted into a classroom, ordered to fill out a checklist, and then herded into the Low-Inference Room, where they were assigned seats by number and told to fasten their seat belts. “These seats come with seat belts because systemic change is quite a ride,” said a booming voice through the loudspeakers. “You probably don’t want to change, and the teachers are even more resistant than you. So be prepared for some discomfort.”

Bewildered, the principals looked up, down, and around them. Their escort, a consultant named Gil Hines, walked slowly around the room, inspecting the seat belts.

“Which component in the Danielson rubric are we evaluating today?” the voice fairly screamed. “Number 24, provide the answer.”

“Number 24, that’s you, Nina Perotta,” said Hines. “Everyone check your seat numbers, because there won’t be any excuses next time.”

“Which component are we evaluating? It’s on the tip of my brain, it’s something about assessment…”

“Unprepared!” bellowed the voice. “Number 24 receives zero and a warning in the file. Number 96, which component are we evaluating today?”

“Today we are evaluating Component 3c, ‘Engaging Students in Learning’; specifically, the second item, ‘Grouping of students.’”

“Correct! Now, everyone say that together. “Component 3c, second item, ‘Grouping of Students.’”

“Component 3c, second item, ‘Grouping of Students.”

“Are we looking at anything else today? Number 57, are we looking at anything else?”

“Well, I always try to see what’s going on in a lesson when I….”

“Zero for number 57. This brings us to our lesson for today. Today we are going to learn low-inferencing. By the end of the lesson, all principals will be able to deliver a five-second low-inference evaluation of component 3c, item 2.” The objective suddenly appeared on a large screen. “Number 63, read the aim out loud for us.”

“All principals will be able to deliver a five-second low-inference evaluation of component 3c, item 2.”

“Correct. Number 15, read the aim aloud again.”

“All principals will be able to deliver a five-second low-inference evaluation of component 3c, item 2.”

One principal was sobbing. A few others tried to turn around but found they could not move. Two more straps had somehow emerged and fastened their shoulders to the chair.

The voice in the loudspeaker was now accompanied by a steady, quiet electronic drumbeat. “Now, I am going to deliver the lesson on low-inferencing,” the voice said. “Low-inferencing goes against everything you have been taught. You have been taught to interpret the world around you, to make judgments about what you see, to fill in the blanks in order to make sense of things. Low-inferencing is just the opposite. Low-inferencing is about reporting what you see, no more, no less, and refraining from any and all interpretation. Now, I am going to give you an example, and then I will give you an activity.”

A video of a classroom appeared on the screen. Students were working in groups; the teacher, who had been circulating from group to group, paused and said, “You have been grouped today according to your proficiency in graphing, but if any of you feel that you have been put in the wrong group, you are welcome to move to a different table right now.” The video stopped.

“Now, did anyone see the aim on the board?” the voice continued. “Number 88, did you see the aim?”

“It was to graph the sine function, I think,” said Number 88, the one who had been sobbing earlier.

“Good. Therefore, is the grouping appropriate to the aim of the lesson?”

“It appears so.”

“Not ‘appears.’ Yes or no.”

“Yes.”

“So I am going to rate the teacher as ‘effective’ in this category, at least. Now, what about students’ own control over their grouping? I am going to answer this for you, in the interest of time. For a teacher to be rated ‘highly effective’ in this category, the students would have to initiate changes of grouping. Here we see the teacher giving the students the opportunity to change groups, but this did not come from the students. Therefore, the teacher will be rated ‘effective’ but not ‘highly effective.’”

“But—“ Several principals began to speak up at once, and then shrieked in pain.

“This is for you to implement, not to question. Everyone must implement it in exactly the same way. Now, think back on the classroom you visited this morning. What did you see in terms of grouping and in terms of grouping only? Number 7, what did you see?”

“This doesn’t seem fair because—“ Suddenly Number 7 let out a long, agonized scream, through which the throbbing of his chair could be heard.

“Number 10, what did you see?”

“I saw no grouping at all. It was a whole-class lesson.”

“Wrong, but you get partial credit. A whole class is still a group. The question is, is this grouping appropriate to the students and to the instructional outcomes, and do the students have control over it? Number 34?”

“It’s impossible to tell, because…” Number 34 winced.

“Wrong. You may have seen a student looking out the window. This means the student was not engaged. This means the grouping was not appropriate for that student.”

“But that’s an interpretation!” Number 34 exclaimed. Her chair began to shake and buzz, and she didn’t speak again.

Engagement is engagement,” said the voice. “There’s no interpretation there. Either the students are engaged or they aren’t. If even one child is unengaged, we can low-inference that something is at least slightly wrong with the grouping. Now, using your clickers, give this teacher a rating. If you get it wrong, your chair will tell you, and you may try again. The results will show in a bar graph on the screen.”

At first the bar graph showed many “effective” ratings. Then, after many screams, cries, and groans, the “Ineffective” bar grew to 100 percent.

“I am very pleased with you,” said the voice, as a soothing melody began to play. “You have all achieved the instructional aim of the lesson. What’s more—pardon the joke—you were all engaged.”

The principals were then escorted into a lavishly decorated room with appetizers and champagne. “Change is painful at first,” the voice said over the loudspeaker, “but as you see, there are rewards. After this reception, you will all go together to a spa for the rest of the day; the buses are waiting outside.”

Later that morning, the teacher received notice that one hundred principals had rated her ineffective and that she no longer had a job.

Professionalism Without Protection: The Danielson Framework

The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in New York City and many other districts, states that a teacher at the “proficient” level “volunteers to participate in school and district projects, making a substantial contribution.” A teacher at the “distinguished” level (the highest) does all of this but also “assumes a leadership role in a major school or district project.” I have criticized the Framework for its extreme emphasis on student initiative in the classroom; here I will take up the problem of professional responsibilities. When “volunteering” is mandatory and when everyone is supposed to be a “leader,” something has gone off kilter, and teachers have little or no protection of their own lives.

It is not enough to take on an official duty, according to the Framework. The explanatory text states that teachers “are keenly alert to the needs of their students and step in on their behalf when needed”—recognizing signs of abuse, locating a winter coat for the child, and suggesting outside programs and activities. Such teachers “never forget that schools are not institutions run for the convenience of the adults who work in them; instead, the purpose of schools is to educate students. These educators care deeply for the well-being of their students and mobilize whatever resources are necessary for them to be successful.” In the following paragraph, it says that “educators are advocates for their students, particularly those whom the educational establishment has traditionally underserved.” (I object to the latter part of the sentence–but that’s a separate matter.)

In other words, a teacher must be willing to serve the students—especially the disadvantaged ones—from morning to night but is not allowed any “conveniences” for herself. In this sense, the Danielson Framework tries to have it both ways. It wants teachers to give everything (I have only quoted a fraction of the expected duties) but does not accord them privacy, dignity, or reprieve. To go beyond the call of duty is the call of duty. If you have a breakdown or fall ill, the system will march on, and you will be brushed off as yet another who couldn’t quite live up to the impossible.

Perhaps I exaggerate. The Danielson Framework makes some allowances for teachers’ personal lives (this, again, is from the explanatory part of the framework, not the rubric):

At certain times in one’s life, family demands are such that teachers have little space capacity to devote to school and district affairs. Attending to young children or to a parent with a disability can require enormous amounts of time and commitment. Some teachers let it be known that although they must leave school right at the end of the contract day, they can make their contribution through work they do at home, whether it is finding resources on the Internet for a team-teaching project or establishing the roster for students to volunteer at the soup kitchen.

So, even a teacher who “must” leave at the end of the day should compensate by doing something from home (beyond lesson planning and grading), something that shows that she’s still at the students’ service, even though her own life has overwhelming demands. Of course, only those with socially acceptable outside demands (illness, a child) will be counted in this. What if you are going through a difficult period and wish to keep it to yourself? What if you have made a wonderful new friend with whom you are spending time? What if you are working on a project that you don’t wish to announce to the world? Or what if you have family troubles that are no one else’s business? None of this counts, as it is invisible. In addition, putting extra thought into your lesson doesn’t count–a soup-kitchen roster, apparently, matters more than a few evening hours with Kierkegaard.

Now, many teachers do take joy in doing extra things for their students—and this dedication enhances the life of the school. In my first few years of teaching, I directed English language learners in performances of plays and musicals. At other times I given homework help over the phone, offered an elective, or taught Saturday classes; most recently, I have held philosophy roundtables for parents. I have written extensively on education; in the summers, I serve on the faculty of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. I took on these extra duties (some directly pertinent to school, some not) because I had the desire and the room. But teachers also need removal from school—not because of any blatant hardship or crisis, necessarily, but because they need some time to think, work on a project, take care of their health, or deal with some other aspect of their lives. This does not make them inferior as teachers. To the contrary: it sets an example for the students, who can learn from such examples how to maintain good boundaries–that is, how to protect the different domains of their lives and respect the domains of others. It will also teach or remind them that there is such a thing as an end to the day.

Instead of a “give everything, demand nothing” model, I propose two alternatives. A school may state up front that it expects extra commitment from the teachers (who may decide whether or not to teach at that school). In return, it should offer teachers the utmost respect and protection: quiet time for thought and planning, additional compensation, a school-wide discipline code (that is enforced), appreciation of the teachers and what they do, sane priorities, and intellectual substance. The school should be a place where a teacher would choose to lead an intellectual life.

Or else a school might make the extra professional activities entirely optional—passing no judgment on teachers who focus primarily on teaching their classes. In that case, the schools would not be obligated to offer teachers a nurturing environment, nor would teachers be expected to live for school. The school might still have excellent activities and resources, in addition to its regular offerings—but these would come from the teachers’ voluntary efforts and would not be taken for granted.

Teachers should be recognized for the extra things they do—but those should be extra offerings, not requirements, unless the school has made the arrangement clear (and offers something in return). To teach well, and to attain true professionalism, you need to honor your own life–without apology or explanation, and without having to submit your soul for scrutiny.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece since its initial posting.

District Announces Value-Added Bazaar

In a major urban district that requested anonymity, teachers will be required to attend a bazaar in order to purchase the value-added formula that suits them best. (In education, value-added formulas are used to rank teachers on the basis of their students’ test score improvement.)

“It’s ‘bazaar,’ not ‘bizarre,’” said Superintendent Elmer Bozard, whose initial proposal inspired a major donation from an anonymous celebrity, an “influencer” who thinks education is important.

(Readers may be wondering: how can the urban district remain anonymous, now that Bozard has revealed his name? Answer: Bozard is as yet unknown to the education world. He just graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy and has never been a teacher or principal. His appointment is still unannounced, as the previous superintendent has yet to be officially fired.)

“This is sheer innovation,” Bozard went on to explain. “Ever since we started rating teachers with formulas, we’ve been getting numerous complaints about errors, inconsistencies, absurdities, you name it. So we got together in a secret focus group with industry leaders and came up with this new idea: Let the market be the formula.”

At the Value-Added Bazaar, teachers will view demos of each formula and speak with a value-added consultant. After purchasing their own personal formula (prices range from $10 to $1,000), they will take a personality test. This will match them with a Holistic Evaluation Knowledge Consultant (HEKC) who will manage their Holistic Evaluation Needs. “Research has shown that teachers are valid people, but that they resist change,” said Shelly Speranza, CEO of Valid People, Inc. “So our consultants begin by affirming the teachers as people. Then they tell them that if they want to stay human, they will have to change, because humans change. For consistency’s sake, we make sure that our evaluations match the value-added ratings.” Consultants earn a minimum of $1,000 a day, but each teacher will only have to pay $100 a month for the services.

Although teachers may choose the formula that rates them “effective,” the sum total of ratings will lead to the firing of 50 percent of the teachers. “You see,” explained Speranza, “each time a teacher is rated effective, someone else is rated ineffective. We tally up each teacher’s ‘ineffective’ ratings and divide down the middle. The ones most frequently rated ‘ineffective’ will have to go.”

“Brilliant!” exclaimed the economist and movie actor Brian Handshake. “We’ve been dying to find a way to get rid of teachers so that student achievement can shoot up to the heavens. Now they can get rid of themselves!”

Curiously, teachers have not shown excitement over the bazaar. “I’ve got to prepare a lesson on Blake,” said a high school English teacher. “I don’t have time for this.”

“We’ll hype it up a bit more,” said Bozard, when we passed on her comment. “We’re planning to give out a lot of goodies there.” Noting that teachers often pay out of pocket for required bulletin board supplies, he has ordered a large supply of bulletin board backing paper, colorful borders with stars and animals, staples, construction paper, pushpins, and ready-made rubrics and standards.

In addition, at the bazaar, a leading software and hardware company will be offering to inject microchips in teachers for free. “When they let us track them, we know they’re not hiding anything,” said Bozard. “Their disclosure level isn’t part of the value-added ratings yet, but their HEKC will be informed of it and will treat them accordingly. Over time, their personal lives will figure into their ratings as well.”

Eventually it will be possible to purchase value-added formulas at regular grocery stores. “We expect many more brands over the next 5-10 years,” said Handshake, “and it’s important to keep the market fluid. So you can expect to see machines dispensing cards with barcodes. Teachers will just scan them against their chips, and the calculations will begin.”

The Need for Eccentricity in Education

Good teachers are eccentrics. This does not mean that they have quirky habits and mannerisms or that they stand out in any obvious way. This eccentricity is often quiet; it comes from diving into the subject in order to grasp its essence, then bringing it to the students in a form that they can understand. The teacher acts as a messenger and undergoes transformations. Now she sits absorbed in a book, oblivious to her surroundings; later she bursts into recitation, waking students up into a poem. The teacher’s mind keeps working and playing at odd moments of the day—during walks down the hall, lunch breaks, and the waits beside the photocopy machine.

Education reform doesn’t honor this eccentricity. Instead, it pushes teachers and students toward a norm that it then tries to lift. You can’t lift a norm. Norms are just that: normal, average, unlifelike, heavy. To make schools better, you have to honor education’s spark and wit. Teachers and students who do the best work do it in slightly unusual ways.

Many believe fervently in judging teachers by their students’ test scores. In their view, nothing could be fairer. Let teachers teach in the way they deem best, and judge them by their results. But what is the upshot of this? Teach for America has been working on a formula to identify, in advance, the teachers likeliest to bring test score increases. So far, their most robust findings are that prospective teachers with high college GPAs and demonstrated leadership skills (such as experience running a club) tend to bring about higher test scores in their students. This points to a dubious conclusion that we should give preference to prospective teachers who were presidents of clubs and got 4.0 GPAs.

Imagine the consequences. If you’re an introverted student who loves to dwell on a passage in a story or novel, or who enjoys proving a mathematical theorem in different ways, then you will be set on edge by a cadre of teachers who view education as a means to a material end—who emphasize getting the scores, getting the resume, getting elected president. Some of my most brilliant teachers had roundabout and zigzag lives; they probably did well in school, even spectacularly well, but their GPA was in many cases a side effect of what they did. They had some kind of spirit of leadership, but often it wasn’t overt; they might never have run any club.

Of course it’s fine to bring about test score gains, as long as that is not the primary goal—but it’s folly to identify and favor the personalities who can do so. There’s a fuzzy space where students who show good but not stellar test score gains may actually be learning more than those whose scores excel. Their long-term learning may be greater; their progress may be steady and strong. Their teachers may leave them with things that they remember years later. (This may also not be the case, but the possibility is there.)

Well, say the reformers, that’s why we have holistic teacher evaluations. They balance things out. The teacher is judged not only on the test scores, but also on her lesson planning, classroom atmosphere, and more.

Yes, this is so. But the “holistic” teacher evaluation rubrics favor the well-rounded teacher who has all the recognized components of good teaching. It does not favor the teacher with outstanding, overriding strengths—for instance, the teacher who has exceptional knowledge of her subject but is not especially involved in community events, or the teacher who gives memorable lessons but does not emphasize group activity. Oh, and woe on the absent-minded teacher. Rubrics such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching give the highest rating to teachers who set and achieve concrete goals for the lesson, who emphasize small group work, whose classrooms are highly organized, who collaborate frequently with colleagues, and who engage in approved professional development activities.

Test scores and teacher evaluations  can tell us a great deal. But we should be wary of a world in which everyone does everything just so. Education is full of bumps and gleams. Here’s to the teacher who wants students to do well but, even more than that, wants them to walk away with something. That means spending some days hitting the stone with the pick and getting nothing from it. It means bringing students stories and lessons from other times and mines, so that they will know that their work is not a waste. It means releasing oneself from petty pressures, letting oneself be with the work and nothing else. And it means—for teachers and students alike—not worrying too much about what others do and say, or what one’s instant rating might be.