On September, 19, 2012 in a CNN article about wins and losses in the last Chicago Teachers Strike, Michael Pearson reported that “Mayor Rahm Emanuel walked away with a teacher evaluation system and other changes that he says will make educators more accountable.”
The accountability system is called REACH and as far as my experience with the system is concerned, REACH is like fire in the dawn of civilization: It can be used to guide our way through the night in a dark forest or it can be used to burn somebody and cause unjustified pain. It really depends on who’s in a position to implement it. It also depends on whether the specific local school council where the system is implemented has a strong enough structure of checks and balances to ensure that administrators make fair use of this evaluating tool.
I recently resigned from my tenured position in a Chicago public school. I have worked with different local administrations in two different CPS schools for fifteen years. Throughout those years I have witnessed how Central Office and city policies are only as well-intentioned, effective and productive as the local authority in charge of implementing them. Just like taking an accurate pulse of a patient will determine how to prescribe a remedy, taking an accurate pulse of the school culture will determined the appropriate usage and dosage of a policy. In other words, leaders always have prerogatives. Yet they are also in a position to decide when and how to make fair use of them.
The CPS framework emphasizes individualization and differentiation of instructional resources to accommodate every student’s profile. Yet it doesn’t account for the fact that at the high school level, some teachers have 70 students while others have 170. It also doesn’t account for the reality that some teachers have to plan for four or five entirely different courses while others only have to plan for one or two. By comparison with the way students are supposed to be treated by their teachers (taking into account the students individual programs and their specific needs), teachers themselves are not being treated with an even remotely similar level of fairness by their administrators. We all live and learn by example. That is one of the reasons why I consider this the weakest area of REACH. Imagine this scenario: What would happen if some students were arbitrarily given a course load four times larger than their peers as a graduation requirement? Which student would accept that willingly? So to follow that logic: why would it be appropriate to apply this standard to teachers?
As far as the above points are concerned, my attempts to be heard by the Union have been mildly unsatisfactory. The only way the Union has ever addressed this issue has been to commit to “backing me up” in the event of a related grievance. In an environment fueled by fear and intimidation, grievances have never been a solution – they only magnify the problem. If you think you have been scrutinized before filing an official grievance, I would wish anyone good luck receiving fair treatment after that grievance is received by the administration. Just as a legal deposition can be stressful, so can the grievance process as it involves hearings, documentation, and potential harassment from the accused.
Another really uncomfortable fact about REACH is the assumption that human beings have the capacity to conduct fully “objective” observations of their subordinates’ behavior without affecting it by the very nature of the observation. I have the feeling that both the hard sciences and the high profile branches of academia have a hard time accepting schools of education as their peers. I also have the suspicion that this lack of acceptable research standards at such a basic level might have something to do with it. Anybody who has ever taken an introductory class in psychology would question the validity of an “objective” perception of the complex reality of human interaction in a classroom. The fact that the observer affects the observed reality seems to be taken for granted in every other field of research. REACH ignores that extremely basic premise.
Under REACH, evaluations are based on “evidence.” Yet it is the administrator’s prerogative to decide exactly what part of what happens in the classroom will be used as “evidence.” I have only been evaluated with REACH once and my ratings were not bad at all. Based on those mainly proficient ratings, some suggest that I shouldn’t complain. However, the evidence provided did not contribute in any way, shape or form to help me improve; and this seems to be the entire purpose of REACH. Therefore I will, if not complain, at least open myself to reflection. In fact what made me profoundly skeptical of the method were the pieces of evidence that the administrator used to evaluate my work.
I come from the field of linguistics (Applied Linguistics and Pragmatics) and I’m extremely sensitive to issues in discourse analysis. First of all, the utterances that the observer used as evidence to rate my performance only made up for a string of random lines that provided no cohesion with the discourse on objectives and assessments that I presented in the pre-observation. The observer never made the slightest effort to explain the relevance of such an entirely incohesive chain of utterances. For some reason, establishing a connection between that “evidence” and the instructional unit as a whole was not on the agenda of the feedback portion. As of today I still wonder what the point in the pre-observation was and whether the administrator actually had an idea of what the whole premise of my unit was.
Another issue that might help illustrate my frustration is the fact that although no reference was ever made to wikipedia, neither in the pre-observation nor in the classroom, this administrator reported how “I” incorporated wikipedia as “evidence” of technology use. This administrator believed that the interactive curriculum webs I used in class were wikipedia, although the interface wasn’t even remotely similar. I kindly asked the administrator to remove that inaccuracy from my review. When this post observation was over, I left the office with a massive headache but also with a sense of relief. I had learned nothing worthwhile from the time consuming exercise. That time could have been used for the students benefit instead. Yet, at least it was finally over, or was it?
Later that day the REACH administrator told me that one of my ratings “had” to be lowered. Since we had already concluded the evaluation by the time I left the post-observation meeting, I’m not sure whether this behavior was in compliance with REACH. At that point I was depleted and I just did not want to deal with this person’s communicative patterns, which were really exhausting me. I signed my name to the forms under duress and I did not say another word. The after-the-fact-and-behind-my-back decision was based on the “evidence” that one of my students didn’t volunteer to do a class presentation. Wouldn’t it be obvious that the presence of an administrator in the classroom might intimidate students in the same way that this intimidates teachers? Excepting that the student can take the prerogative of postponing the presentation and have the teacher be blamed for it. This is a prerogative that a teacher is not entitled to. Ironically it was that very student’s proficient work that provided truly informed “evidence” of the purpose of my unit. In other words, my students work helped me improve while that administrator’s evaluation drained my vital energy and became a liability in my instructional agenda.
My experience with REACH was overall frustrating and demoralizing and yet I can’t blame the model itself. Just like fire, it really depends on the hands holding the torch. Just like fire, REACH has the potential to be the most constructive tool if put in the right hands or the most destructive tool in less capable ones. Right around the time I resigned from my tenured position, the use that was made of REACH in my local environment came across as cautionary intimidation rather than professional growth. Teachers were constantly warned that failing to comply with countless directives simultaneously would be conducive to disciplinary action and that this would seriously affect their REACH evaluations.
I’m sure that there are more productive ways to implement REACH, which is why I never blame policy per se. This is why I never point fingers at Central Office. I had the chance to have my last professional encounter with the Central Office the day I resigned and I didn’t come across any Big Brother scrutinizing the little people in the trenches as some might be trying to make you think. They were highly cooperative and professional. They probably understood what a big step I was taking after so many years of collaboration and their compassionate feelings were evident to me.
(c) 2013, read_foreign