I’m working my way through San Diego Unified’s leaked draft of their 12 indicators for quality schools. Since this document apparently hadn’t been shared out with other stakeholders (the union, parent groups, the general community, etc.), I imagine it’s going to go through a lot of changes.

But that doesn’t stop us from basing our discussion on the assumptions this document makes, so I’ll go ahead and dive in.

For now I’m only going to focus on the first indicator of school quality (Quality Teaching). I’ll delve into the rest of the document in the future.

I was surprised that Objective 1.1 (Engaging and supporting all students in learning) was such a large proportion of the rating system (40 percent), given that student achievement represents a comparatively much smaller percentage (it’s there, though, as I’ll get to later).  

One problem with giving so much importance to Objective 1.1 is that the evidence it describes needs to happen every day in the classroom, but the principal usually only observes teachers a couple of times a year (sometimes only once).

For the ratings in this category to be mean anything, the principal would need to observe teachers constantly. One way to improve this measurement would be to expand the responsible party to include a student feedback component, or even a parent/community feedback component.

Now, I don’t like the idea of people randomly walking into my classroom unannounced, looking specifically to find faults in my instruction. I can imagine such a situation bordering on teacher harassment in a worst-case scenario. But it is possible to create a healthy school culture in which teachers are comfortable with people visiting their classes.

The Preuss School, where I teach, has many visitors who want to learn about our instructional practices, and many of our teachers are accustomed to a steady stream of visitors. Nurturing a culture of constructive, open observations requires a lot of cooperation and trust between principals and teachers.

Another important prerequisite for frequent observations is principals who are well-versed in instructional practices and who are their schools’ education leaders. This may sound obvious, but I’m concerned that many in the current wave of self-designated education reformers from the business sector don’t value school leadership that is capable of engaging on the instructional level with teachers. They seem to favor data managers as school leaders.

Peter Orszag (President Obama’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, and current vice chairman of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup)  has written about this concern.

[The Gates Foundation researchers] found that teacher analysis could be done without having observers make random visits to the classroom; allowing a teacher to submit a self-selected set of videos from the classroom worked just as well, because even the best classes conducted by bad teachers were worse than those from better teachers.

I’m not anti-data. Data is an important tool for guiding teacher instruction, and for assessing whether teachers are responding to their students’ strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think it should be used primarily as a punitive tool, especially given that students don’t have a stake in these assessments. A

s a reader for the AP European History exam last year, I had the pleasure of reading all kinds of nonsensical letters written by students who sat for the exam but didn’t attempt to answer the essay question I was grading — a few actually wrote that they were too tired to write the essay. Granted, it’s a long exam, but I wouldn’t want their teacher’s livelihood to depend on whether a student had enough energy to complete an exam that has little to no bearing on his/her future (some colleges won’t even give credit for high AP scores).  

I would use test scores (in the case above, AP scores) to assess whether a teacher is updating his or her lesson plans to address student deficiencies, as measured by a variety of data. I think this is a critical component of teacher quality assessment, but it is currently under-weighted in this draft of Quality Teaching.

The way I’m reading the document, there is a section dedicated to student achievement: Indicator 1.5.2, which is under Objective 1.5: Assessing Student Learning (10 percent). Being able to adapt lesson plans to target individual and group weaknesses is the mark of a good teacher. Even a great teacher can have a group of students that doesn’t respond to his or her lessons because of a glaring underlying weakness, be it academic or personal. That teacher is going to have to develop new approaches in order for students to succeed. That’s going to require collaboration with colleagues, research on content and teaching techniques and developing new lesson plans.

I had such an experience at one point in my career, a few years back. I had just finished a successful school year with a group of students that had responded well to the academic supports I had implemented that year, so I was pretty happy. It became immediately clear the next year, however, that my lesson plans weren’t working on my new students. They were dealing with motivational issues — something my lesson plans didn’t account for. I worked with my colleagues to address my class’s needs throughout the year, and I feel better-equipped to address those sorts of issues in the future. But I may get a group of kids with issues I’ve never dealt with before, and I’ll need to work quickly in order to address their needs.

It’s like a batter who hits home runs every time the pitcher throws a fastball. That’s great, as long as he keeps getting fastballs. But pitchers are going to discover his weakness (let’s say it’s the slider), and then throw that. The mark of a good hitter is one who can make the necessary adjustments and learn to hit sliders for extra bases. It takes time for good teachers to develop new tools and techniques to adapt to their students’ academic needs.

The catch, though, is that teachers actually need to put in the work to make those adjustments and get better results.

Indicator 1.5.2 means collecting data on student achievement. It means that teachers have to learn how to adjust to shifting circumstances in their classrooms. It also means that principals (currently the responsible party for this indicator) have to work with teachers to help them make those adjustments and assess whether those changes are appropriate. It also means that we need to have accurate metrics by which to assess student learning. That’s a whole lot of effort for something that counts for only 10 percent.

Oscar Ramos is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow him on Twitter @OscarRamosSD or email oscar.ramos.blog@gmail.com.

Oscar Ramos

Oscar Ramos is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow him on Twitter@OscarRamosSD or email oscar.ramos.blog@gmail.com.

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