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(Wintercow: I asked my former student, Greg Van Houten, to put together a few posts on his impressions of teaching. Greg graduated as a double major in Political Science and Economics from the U of R in Spring 2010. Since then he has been teaching as part of the Teach for America Program in Boston at the Prospect Hill Academy Charter School.)

A few of my friends have entry-level sales jobs.  They work using a variety of annoying sales tactics to try to sell cigarettes, life insurance, financial products, and even steak knives.  Not surprisingly, their supervisors keep close tabs on them.  Bi-weekly, weekly, or even daily check-ins are common; and if they’re not selling then they can count on having an undesirable conversation with their supervisor.  If they continue to not sell, they’ll be held accountable and will be at risk of losing their job (some actually have).

Interestingly, this same system of accountability does not always occur in K-12 education.  In this post I am going to break down how teachers should be held accountable (in a fashion that closely resembles entry-level sales jobs) and how some schools fail to hold their teachers accountable.

Let’s start with the bad and then get to the good.  My friend teaches at a public school not known for providing a high-level education.  Student test scores raise eyebrows for the wrong reasons, many students drop out, and the lucky few who graduate seem take a few extra years to do so.  From what I’ve heard, the staff is not hard working and the stakes just don’t seem high.  I wonder why this is…

Well, just like in sales, teachers need to be checked in on.  Principals and other administrators should keep track of their teachers and assess their performance on a consistent basis.  There are a variety of ways to do this (student feedback and survey results, student assessment data analysis, video taped lessons, etc.) but among the most common are performance reviews that are based upon teacher observations.  The understanding is that if you are observed and you are bad, then you may be on that path towards losing your job.  Most schools understand this concept and do it well, but some schools screw it up.

At my friend’s “bad” school, teachers are told several weeks ahead of time about an observation.  Teachers know that it’s high stakes, so they prepare for weeks to nail this one lesson they will be leading in front of an administrator. They clean their classrooms, put up posters, use technology, and spend hours rehearsing their lesson as they attempt to put on a show for an hour.  With so much preparation, many teachers appear to be incredible educators.  After their observed lesson, they know they’re set to coast for a few more months, until the next round of observations occurs.  So, for now they’ll relax, sit back, and put minimal effort into their instruction. (This of course assumes all teachers are shirkers. Of course, this is not the case. But, even if you’re a great teacher, you’ll likely put a lot of time, effort, and resources into your observed lesson. Thus, your instruction in other lessons could suffer.)

The incentives for teachers at this “bad” school do not align with the need for teachers to be on their A game everyday.  Perhaps a few times a month they will put thought and care into their lessons because they know that if they appear to be ineffective then their job may be at risk.  This is not to say that all teachers at schools that advance schedule their observations are bad.  Many are good, but the incentives aren’t aligned correctly to ensure that every teacher is treating every lesson like it’s high stakes and that their job may depend on their performance.

Some schools get it right.  These schools randomly observe their teachers.  Observations can happen at any moment, on any day, so teachers have to be ready to perform at all times.

At the school I currently teach at, I’ve been observed more than once in a day and several times in the same week.  Moreover, I’ve had the superintendent drop in for half of a lesson (with a dozen or so prospective donors).  The stakes are high in my school.  An ineffective teacher is easily identified after a few months, because several random observations happen soon after the start of the year.  These teachers are put on improvement plans and must demonstrate improvement to be invited back next year.  Really ineffective teachers may be asked to leave in the middle of the year.  Importantly, no one can slip through the cracks.  The schools the screw this up may have several ineffective teachers coast along for years because they can play the system and nail a few lessons once in awhile.

Although this discussion addresses this issue on the K-12 level, it certainly is applicable to higher education, where teacher observation/accountability fails to exist at most institutions (I suppose accountability exists via student feedback, but I’m not sure how seriously this data is taken at most schools).  I’ve heard the argument that observing these higher-level faculty would damage their “academic freedom” and I don’t buy it.  What about my statistics professor who barely spoke English to her English speaking students?  And while teaching directly from the book, somehow managed to make it more difficult to understand?  Does statistics class need “academic freedom”?  At the very least, post-secondary institutions could observe a few lessons or require faculty to submit a few videotaped lessons, just to ensure that their faculty are doing something productive.  But, if they’re to ever get serious about ensuring that their teachers are doing their jobs 100% of the time, random observations are needed.
In closing, all schools should incentivize teachers consistent and daily effort.  By making it clear that you could be watched at any moment and that your performance during these random observations will impact your job security, schools can easily accomplish this.  Of course this entire idea relies upon having competent administrators and an effective observation/feedback plan, but that’s another issue.  For now, all schools should ensure that they have this layer of teacher accountability by making random observations a part of their evaluation system for all teachers.

7 Responses to “Guest Post: Keeping Teachers Honest – Random vs. Scheduled Observations”

  1. Harry says:

    Greg, thank you for your thoughtful piece. The Unbroken Window continues as Professor Wintercow hikes among the fossils.

    Somebody told me some time ago that one does not inspect quality into any product, be it a Band-Aid or a course in school. This was when I had an epiphany on the difference between Quality Control and Quality Assurance.

    Johnson & Johnson always used the word Quality Assurance to keep everyone’s mind on making sure every Band-Aid that went out the door was within their strict standards for quality. The question there was what went into the dumpster and what got shipped. The object was to minimize what went into the dumpster and to maximize what went out the door at a pre-determined cost.

    The problem you raise — in general, how to manage our schools — is a big one, and I would hardly attempt to pretend to have a general answer to that. Nor could I have any idea how your school might be better managed unless I understood your school well enough to know the details. I do know without looking, however, that it is probably completely screwed up. Pick a category.

    I would also bet a lot of money that Johonson and Johnson does a better job making Band-Aids than the government does running schools, which brings us back to capitalism and accountability.

  2. Random observations are of course a good method for incentivizing teachers to be on their game. In China where I teach, my school practices this method.

    Education is a two way street. The randomized treatment practiced by your school does nothing, and I presume is not intended, to further incentivize students to pay more attention, try harder, remember assignments more frequently, etc. Does your school attempt to incentivize students directly to perform better with novel and/or particularly effective method?

    The only thing Chinese schools do to directly incentivize students is to allow the best students (highest scoring students) to attend better schools. If a student does not try very hard, then they will not be able to attend the stronger schools.

  3. Harry says:

    By the way, Greg, tell your friends that all sales jobs are not as ugly as the ones they may have experienced. Ugly, oily. I am not surprised.

    I have known some great salesmen/saleswomen, however, who have sold their great product honorably in that great arena, the free market. I have also half-heartfeltly attempted to sell expensive pots and pans to high-school senior girls and their mothers. Part of the script was, “And, Mary, when you get married, and I am sure you will…”

    Now, this was in Connecticut, under the rule of Chris Dodd’s father Tom. The knee-jerk response would be to tell the amply-staffed Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection to clamp down on the pots-and-pan Nazis. The next step is to control the sales people from United Technololiges who sell aircraft engines that compete with GE, all to protect the girl from being tempted by the fine bone china that goes with the pots and pans.

    An important Hayek insight is the futility of deciding these questions.

    Best wishes to you and your fellows in your careers.

  4. CC says:

    This is a great post! I’m a former student of wintercow’s and am currently teaching in Kentucky. I’ve worked in two school districts, one that had a system like you described, scheduled observations, and the one where I currently teach that has both formal, scheduled observations and many frequent non-scheduled. The latter of the two has the higher test scores and is considered by most in the state to be a better school, even though its students are more impoverished.

    Random observations are the only way to go, and I as a teacher welcome it. Sure, you may catch me on an off day occasionally, but it provides a situation where teachers can get feedback from a principal and search for ways to improve. Teaching can be a very stagnant profession if you’re not evaluated often.

    Good luck with your work as a teacher! It can be a very rewarding career!

  5. Rod says:

    In order to attain accreditation here in the northeast, most private schools undergo “evaluation” every ten years or so. I was a teacher and, later, a trustee at my alma mater, so I went through two evaluations, both of which my school passed with flying colors.

    The bad news is that those evaluations were some of the biggest piles of bull manure this side of American Breeders. The first step was to undertake a “self-evaluation,” which was a literal preview of what the Middle States would do the year after the self-evaluation. Is it surprising at all that a school itself would give all the right answers to the teachers and administrators before a big test?

    I remember getting ready for my classes before the official evaluators arrived. I generally knocked myself out for most of my classes, but I did my best ahead of time to convince my students to actually do their homework for the Middle States folks so I would get more than zero hands in the air when I asked a question. I never decorated my classroom (actually, my school moved me around from one classroom to the other) and I never used an overhead projector, the high-tech gizmo of the olden days. I did not throw any erasers at wiseguys, and I did not have to wake anyone up by shaking his desk. I was not fired, and we passed the evaluation (with those flying colors), so I suppose I was on my A game. I also think the evaluators, being private school teachers themselves, were in on the basic principles of evaluation, so whatever inadvertent dumb things I might have done were overlooked.

    My first year teaching, my department head (and one of my own teachers when I was a student) used to lurk outside my classroom and the classrooms of other teachers all the time. I never knew when he was going to show up. He did more than make me behave — he had a knack for teaching English himself, and in the middle of frequent shoot the bull sessions, he’d work in his insights about how one sells English to kids who’d rather be doing something else. Basically it was this: you have to get your students to be what you are — an intelligent,, literate person. And if you’re a lazy, unprepared teacher who does not give a hoot about his subject, let alone his students, the kids figure that out real quick. In that regard, they are better evaluators than the Middle States Association.

    Harry is right: the whole school was screwed up, massively. Yet we were an accredited school. I taught at a time when the culture was changing, in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was also the Director of Admissions, the sales department, so I not only had to sell English but the entire program.

    It was all the rage back then to worship “free expression” in the academic business, so we shifted our approach from a strict one to a loosey-goosey one, where we would not stifle the creative insticts of our students with too much discipline. I was pretty good at selling the strict approach because most of our sales prospects were parents who did not want their sons (and, later, daughters, as single sex education was one of those unpopular strict approach notions that risked stifiling those creative instincts!) to flunk high school and get drafted. I would promise the parents that their kid would spend at least two hours at night studying in his room, with his radio off and nothing but his homework in front of him. Most parents considered this study period alone to be worth the tuition. The reason why the kid was flunking everything at his public high school was that he never studied at all at home. Discipline was our game, and it actually worked when all the teachers doing dorm duty did their job.

    In 1971, however, we got a new headmaster who had read Summerhill, a book about this British school that boasted great results from a program that had no rules at all, including clothes. The headmaster divided the school day into “mods” instead of class hours (as in “the Mod Squad,”) and every gimmick known to education graduate school was incorporated into the curriculum. As sports were no longer required for juniors and seniors, a large portion of the student body got stoned in the afternoon at a “coffeehouse” in the basement of one of our buildings. The chaplain and his wife were in charge of this establishment. When I took families on tours of the campus, I was careful to keep them away from this building lest somebody in the family might detect the odor of marijuana (something that would sell the kid but not the person paying the tuition). In the summer, I had it made for my tours, since no one was smoking in the coffeehouse.

    At any rate, while I was still pretty good at sales, the school’s program was a disaster. In the Student Manual, it said clearly that if a student had fifty or more demerits, he or she would be put on probation, and that the next infraction of the rules could result in expulsion. The students interpreted this part of the manual thus: they had a green light for any misbehavior short of a major felony, so go ahead and do what you want, especially in the coffeehouse. Sadly, their youth and inexperience (Ronald Reagan allusion) led them down the primrose path, and we wound up kicking out more than 40 kids a year. This made the sales effort a lot harder, finding 40 extra kids to pay tuition.

    We also shifted our sales approach. The headmaster told me we were to sell the kid, who, in those liberal days, called the shots. The problem with that was that kids that called the shots made pretty poor students.

    All was not in ruins in those days, however. Our day students were highly motivated and intelligent, so we could still maintain a pretty good college placement record. Then, in the early 80’s, we hired a headmaster who was a discipline and fund-raising specialist. He drew a vivid line that the students understood and that most would not cross.

    All of this school experience makes me a believer in the strict approach. There are plenty of instincts worth stifiling when you are dealing with adolescents, and kids generally respond to a challenge when it comes to schoolwork. It’s also essential that the headmaster or principal is a good judge of teacher talent: you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And the school board or board of trustees have to be good judges of headmasters and principals, and not fall for educational fads, most of which derive from faulty PhD research.

    Speaking of selling, the best selling job I ever had was selling advertising for my own newspaper. The percentages are much higher than for the financial business: I used to convert about 40 percent of my sales calls into advertising orders, so I did not get all depressed when a sales prospect said, “No.” One advantage I had was that after buying my rival newspaper out, I was able to put supply-side economics to work by cutting all the advertising rates. I gave my customers more for their money, and there was a payoff when my customers increased their revenues faster than their advertising expenditures.

  6. Former Student says:

    Sounds like a great idea, in theory…although even the best plan for teacher accountability will not address the bottom line- students must want to learn in order to learn.

    Obviously this is step one, and also the easiest step to make in ensuring the bottom line. But, parents, coaches, society, etc need to have a similiar accountability check and I can’t see an easy solution to that one.

  7. Greg says:

    Former student, I view getting your students to want to learn as part of a teacher’s job. Most people probably don’t, which is a huge flaw in how we view education. It’s not easy and some teachers use that as an out. “Oh, well, so-and-so doesn’t want to learn, so I can’t help him.” Well, actually, you should get him to want to learn because that’s part of your job.

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