Part II: In An Utopian Society: MCEE

Part II: In An Utopian Society: MCEE’s Building an Improvement Focused system of Educator Evaluation in Michigan

 In Part I of this writing, the recommendation report to improve educator evaluations were found impressive and thorough.  The council was excellent in completing their task, however there is a fear that this system will only work within an utopian society due to several issues.  In order for Michigan to “build an improvement focused system of educator evaluation”, there must be a depletion of attitudes that exemplify mistrust and skepticism within the profession, tangible support for flexible and improved professional development opportunities, and finally cohesive ideology among state government and Learning Education Agencies/districts.

In numerous districts, there are tremendous changes that occur each year with staffing for both teachers as well as administrators.  Many districts consistently practice the lay off/recall process at the end of each school year.  Teachers are often laid off in May, shuffled around throughout the summer and then recalled in August to new buildings, grade levels, and school cultures.  This process is noted in news reports from Chicago to Texas to California.  Michigan is no different.  Due to this practice, teacher moral is often low and teacher practices are often in defensive mode.  This becomes a greater problem when the MCEE’s system stipulates there to be several observations performed over the course of the school year.

This constant stream of lay offs, recalls, shuffling about creates a culture of resentment, suspicion, distrust, and skepticism.  Teachers and administrators are often pitted against one another, and positive relationships are rarely able to form among colleagues.  Additionally, high stakes testing that leads to low performance scores, creates blame that always has to find a home.  For administrators, the blame typically finds a home with teachers.  For teachers it can often find a home with either administrators or the student’s home life.  The instability found within the districts causes many teachers to feel there is a lack of competency by school leadership.  Teachers believe there has to be a better way to handle financial restraints than demeaning the human resources most needed, time and time again.  According to NEA article (July 2013), Professional Development: Its Time For Change by Tim Walker, “ Job satisfaction has plummeted to its lowest level in 25 years.  Budget cuts, lack of support, and being constant targets of political attacks has taken its toll on the [teaching] profession.”

It can be argued that the root of distrust and suspicion lies in union propaganda, however teachers often feel administrators do not have their best interest in mind when making decisions regarding student behavior consequences, funding allocations, scheduling and job performance expectations.  Therefore, it would be difficult for teachers to believe that administrators would have the understanding and training to assess numerous teachers throughout the course of one year.  Teachers are often found most content working diligently in an island unto themselves.  It’s the reality of adapting to the environment.  “The isolationist and alienating culture endemic to the teaching profession are a norm throughout the majority of schools in the USA making teaching a private activity.  Current educational reforms and new curricula have intensified the teacher workload leaving less time for professional interaction among teachers.” (Mawhinney, 2008)  This has been a primary reason why the effectiveness has been in question for several years.

Now many teachers may agree that collaboration is necessary to improve effectiveness in practice, however trusting leadership to have the knowledge of improvements as well as ability to articulate them in a supportive manner is something all together different.  Many districts’ leadership lack interpersonal communication skills and even with the training that the council report requires, may take several years to develop the finesse to be successful.   The council’s argument that, “the system should be designed to improve teaching and learning in the state and structured to support on going educator learning and development”, is a departure of recent evaluation policies.  In recent years the evaluations have been used to “weed out” or eliminate ineffective educators, not improve them.  Many state governments and advocacy groups have taken a “let the heads roll” approach in solving the lack of efficiency resulting in low achievement. This could be seen even in Merit pay policies.

Learning Education Agencies have numerous buildings to translate quality education.  These buildings have upwards of twenty plus teaching staff members.  The amount of time needed for multiple observations along with feedback can seem excessive to some administrators and lead to fraudulent behaviors by teachers and administrators.  This will further produce distrust and suspicion that will lead to undermining the system as the rumor wheel turns.  In the land of Utopia of course this would never occur, but out of sheer necessity corners may be cut which will lead to less accurate data and performance improvements.

Utopia, Perhaps!

Tangible support for flexible and improved professional development for both teachers and administrators is another critical issue that needs to be addressed for the MCEE’s system to move from the land of Utopia to Michigan’s reality.  The report stipulates, “Observers need to be trained to observe carefully, attend rigorously to the key elements of instruction, to be thorough and accurate in their note taking and assessments, and responsible in the conclusions they draw from their observations. Evaluator training increases the reliability and validity of observation tools and enhances administrators’ ability to deliver fair, accurate, and usable feedback to teachers.”  In regards to teacher training the council recommends, “To support improvement, educator evaluation must provide specific substantive feedback that is accompanied by targeted and specific professional learning opportunities.”

However professional learning opportunities have definitely become a bone of contention as teachers and administrators alike have experienced one bad PD after another.

In Professional Development: Its time for Change, “Worthwhile professional development is a phrase that may sound incongruous to many classroom teachers.  Still the very term can trigger eye rolls, shaking heads and heavy sighs.  For many classroom teachers the words summon bad memories.”  This surely is not exclusive to just educators but also administrators.  Therefore, the question becomes how do we provide efficient administrator training to improve their skill set to teacher professional learning opportunities that will assist in improvements after gaining valuable feedback?  “The urgency to improve professional learning is also highlighted by the implementation of new teacher evaluations systems.” Unless professional learning is strengthened, teachers can’t be expected to develop and apply the necessary new skills and knowledge to improve student achievement. Providing professional learning opportunities that are collaborative and appropriate is a necessary investment that will produce great dividends for all students.

Finally, the cohesive ideology of state governments and districts is also a structure issue that needs addressing.  States have allowed programs and systems to be developed and voted into practice only to pull back funding of such programs and further burden bewildered teachers and administrators.  The Common Core State Standards is one such example for Michigan.  Although the Common Core was adopted the legislature has blocked its implementation until further debates.  As of this date in October, Michigan will not be supporting the implementation of  Common Core.

Districts across Michigan have been tirelessly planning to go into full implementation mode, aware that the new state assessments were based on these standards only to now not know what to prepare students for.    The recommendations state, “Clearly, creating an educator evaluation system will require developing the relevant policies and processes and creating or adopting relevant instruments to be used. But this system will also require building capacity—both statewide and centrally—to understand, implement, and monitor the system, as well as infrastructure to house data, review materials, produce reports, and conduct program evaluation. In order to carry out these important functions, adequate staffing and resources will be required at both the state and local levels.”(pg. 30)

If this Framework is only given words and little to no action or funding by the state, then the outcomes needed for improved achievement will not occur.

It can be agreed upon that all Michigan’s children deserve effective instructional practices.  It can also be agreed that Michigan’s teachers and administrators have the passion, resilience, and expertise to produce them.  However, these effective improvements will only reside in Utopia without changes in educator attitudes, professional learning and state and district collective philosophies.

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