Thursday, April 23, 2020

On Teacher Evaluation During a Crisis

The headline in my email this morning from Ed Week asked whether it was appropriate to do teacher evaluations in light of the Coronavirus. I wish they would ask the more honest question: is it appropriate to beat up on teachers during the Coronavirus, or should we give it a rest for a year?

If the evaluation systems were based on a true accountability, this question wouldn’t exist. The fact that it does, that accountability and teacher evaluation in schools are in fact being put on hold—means that we don’t have anything even close to an effective accountability or evaluation environment. I continue to argue that if it can be put it on hold you have to stop calling it accountability because it isn’t. I would argue the same for evaluations.

Education's myopic autopsy-based approach to everything inserts a punishment and punishment avoidance mentality into the process, not a how can we be great mindset that is at the heart of great organizations. As I study accountability in those organizations, they do things along the lines of the how can we be great mindset.

Here’s how they do that.
  1. They imagine themselves standing in front of a stakeholder at some point in the future. They ask, “what will I need to say at that moment to prove my effectiveness? To show that I’ve done something great and that my work matters?”
  2. They ask, “what would count as evidence of effectiveness or movement towards greatness?”
  3. They look at the current state of things and figure out what needs to be done so that at that future moment they can state that they have indeed been effective and done something great, with the evidence to show it.
  4. They get to work with a shared understanding of what effectiveness and greatness look like.
  5. When they hit snags—and they always will—they think about that accountability moment in the future and how best to get back on track.
  6. They seek help and support early, when it can make a difference.
  7. The goal in the organization is for every person to have highest evaluation marks possible, because that would mean the organization is highly effective and ready for whatever comes next.
It really is that simple.

In a crisis, nothing changes. In fact, a crisis is when this system is most effective. It is when we most need to develop a clear understanding of what greatness at some point in the not too distant future needs to look like, of what would pass for evidence of that greatness, and what needs to be done between now and then to make it happen.

Millions of educators have already answered that first question in this crazy new environment no teacher could have prepared for: what will greatness look like? They don’t have to ask if their work matters—it does.

They are at this very moment in the process of getting to that new definition of greatness. And as they hit snags—and they have hit a ton of them and aren’t even close the end of it—they don’t punt the moment of greatness down the road, but adjust, and figure out a way around them. And part of that figuring is seeking answers from others and asking for help when they need it.

They get—although they may not use these words—that evaluation should never be a gotcha at some point down the road, based on a day’s worth of test scores from last year, but rather, a summary of what I’m doing right now. Which means my days aren’t spent trying to avoid trouble in the future but figuring out ways to do great things.

If I were in the classroom, I would beg for someone to evaluate me in exactly this way. I would deserve it, because it would finally show the truth. It would show where I was effective during a terrible time, where I was challenged and needed to adjust, and whether or not I accomplished what I set out to do. All of that would be shared with my principal and teacher leaders who are now rooting for me, not staring over my shoulder trying to catch me at something, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise at the end of the process as to whether I had been effective or need to rethink things going forward.

And if that system can work well in a crisis, imagine what it could do when some sense of normalcy returns.

So, should we put the current teacher evaluation programs on hold during the Corona Virus? No. We should simply end them all together. In their place we should have an evaluation system based on the how can we be great mindset, which is how it works in effective organizations, rather than the punishment-avoidance nonsense we’ve had for years—that has never worked to make any organization better than it was.

We do that and maybe something good can come from this mess.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A chance to rethink accountabilty

In this age of the Coronavirus and its overwhelming impact on literally everything, a bright spot in an otherwise ominous cloud is the way we are thinking differently about old problems, rethinking our relationships with each other, and reflecting on what is actually important.

We should do the same with educational accountability. And we have a window in which to do it.

Of all the problems to rethink, educational accountability should be at the top. For the past two decades (longer in some places) educational accountability has followed the "better autopsy" method for improvement, which will always fail. At the end of a school year the state performs an autopsy (and a partial one at that) and then forces schools to ask, "what could we have done last year to have had a better autopsy last year?" and then whatever the response do that this year.

The better autopsy accountability is nonsensical for lots of reasons, but none more so than it will force schools not to change with the times. It presumes that whatever conditions existed last year and the year before will continue (forget that the world is changing faster than we can ever imagine). It makes our our job in education to get kids ready for a world that does not yet exist by getting them ready in a world that hasn't existed for years. In other words, the closer we can align ourselves to a definition of things that was developed years ago but doesn't exist any more (if it ever did), the more likely we are to be declared successful in what is arguably a dumb system. And the more successful we are in that world, the less prepared our students will be for the one that is surely coming.

But it is also nonsensical because it isn't actually accountability. Accountability in effective organization is about the future. It is about ensuring that those in the organization are the right people to take it forward, or that the organization is prepared to do the work we need it to do. Accountability is about what we do in answer to the question, "will my child be safe in school today, and tomorrow, and the next day?" A business that substituted the better autopsy approach instead of actual accountability would, like schools have for years, find it difficult to change, impossible to adjust to new circumstances without tremendous amounts of energy better spent elsewhere, and in the meantime risk stagnating itself into oblivion.

The better autopsy mindset existed in education long before what passes for educational accountability put it on steroids--which helps explain why education looks surprisingly similar to what it looked like when I was in school in the 1970s. And now it's time to knock it off, and we have an opportunity to do just that.

We have some things planned over the next few months, so stay tuned. And if you're interested drop me a note at john.tanner@brave-ed.com (new email--new organization will be announced shortly) and we'll get you on the list for announcements.