I was barely awake this morning when I heard Joe Scarborough raving on TV about the teachers strike in Chicago. He argued that the teachers union was committing public relations suicide and alienating parents while Mayor Rahm Emmanuel cuts them to shreds.
This is possibly all true, but not entirely relevant to the issues at stake, foremost of which are the evaluation methods used to judge teacher performance, who doles out those evaluations, and what consequences those evaluations create. This is heavy stuff.
Teacher evaluation is increasingly significant because of the recent intrusion into such matters by corporate bigwigs like Bill Gates, Steve Brill, and Eva Moskowitz (all advocates of privatizing America's schools). It isn't surprising that dilettantes like these can become — by their own declaration — instant reformers of America's schools. In two areas of our public discourse, politics and education, everyone's an expert because: a) everyone has the right to vote with a government-issued photo ID stamped with an expiration date; and b) we all had to go to school.
A subject dear to the hearts of our current crop of reformers, teacher evaluation is hardly an exact science. When I was earning my Master of Arts in Teaching, the trendy approach to evaluation was a system called “behavioral objectives.” By now, I'm sure these “behavioral objectives” have been laughed out of fashion and are universally seen the way teachers regarded them 40 years ago — as crap.
Nowadays, reformers are promoting corporate human resources practices as the model for evaluation, with special emphasis on judging teachers by how their students score on high-stakes standardized tests in two areas: math and reading (which, in the current management-oriented, vocational interpretation of the American school, are the only two subjects worth a tinker's dam).
Using corporate HR as a guideline might be a feasible approach in measuring the largely non-cognitive effect of teachers on students — if there was some evidence that corporate HR, as a professional practice, knows its ass from its elbow. The record is not encouraging.
For example, I know a conscientious manager who supervised a number of employees in a proudly up-to-date, medium-sized LLC. More often than she had time to do so, she was tasked to evaluate each of her subordinates using a complex form. The form listed a dozen areas of performance, including goals established at the beginning of the evaluation period, goals met, and — wait a minute, you've all worked for companies. You've all seen this crap before.
The real challenge for my supervisor — let's call her Judge Judy — was to protect her people from the depredations of senior management. She was understaffed, but her bosses were always hungry to cut costs (as every worker knows, management's only conceivable method for cost-cutting is firing people).
The company's HR forms allowed Judge Judy three choices in each performance category: above average, average, and below average. The hitch was that if she deemed someone above average in even one category, that worker became eligible for a raise in pay — a notion that caused apoplexy among the big bosses who had already squirreled away every spare penny in quarterly earnings for themselves and their “shareholders.” Therefore, any employee deemed above average and eligible for a raise was more likely to be fired for costing too much.
By the same token, Judge Judy dared not mark anyone below average because that worker would face immediate termination — without replacement — for falling down on the job.
So, everyone Judge Judy ever evaluated went straight down the middle of the page as average, regardless of the actual quality of their work. Everyone was grateful to Judge Judy because a totally meaningless grade of average was the key to job security.
The variable here is that Judge Judy understands the game and cares about her staff. She could be replaced, at any moment, by someone who also understands the system, but sees it as a means to settle personal scores and screw people he or she doesn't like. All it takes to ruin someone's life are a couple of checkmarks in the below or above average columns.
Corporate HR evaluation systems like this are not only obviously subject to the whims of the big bosses, they're also vulnerable to personal spite by little bosses against excellent, dedicated, but perhaps outspoken, workers. Workers who have no labor union behind them to fight for justice in the workplace.
Which brings us back to Chicago…