There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder. ~ Ronald Reagan
As part of the Education Transformation Act of 2015, New York State is reforming its Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and Teacher Effectiveness rating system.
Grant Wiggins in his open letter to Governor Cuomo calls the APPR reforms a “step backward” which disempowers teachers.
NY Middle School Principal Lisa Meade voiced her concerns here and put out the call out to New York educators to respond to the proposed teacher evaluation reforms. Educator Christina Luce added to the conversation in her post, asserting that, while she supports an annual professional reflection and review, the proposed reforms are narrow, punitive and make “an already horrendous evaluation system even worse”.
While I am not a New York educator, I felt compelled to offer a perspective from a different system. My visits with schools and educators last October helped me to learn about how teacher evaluation is approached in New York. While some of the challenges faced were global, shared with Australian schools, some were surprising to me. I wrote various posts documenting my reflections in New York including:
- My visit to a school in Westchester which opened my eyes to the constraints on New York schools in teacher evaluation;
- My visit to a school on the Upper East side which reminded me about the need for schools to find teacher evaluation and growth processes appropriate to their context;
- Meeting Ellie Drago-Serverson at Columbia University to discuss the best environments and practices to facilitate adult learning;
- Meeting with Charlotte Danielson and Cindy Tocci around effective applications of the Framework for Teaching for teacher growth and evaluation; and
- Meeting with New York City professional development provider Teaching Matters, an organisation which bases its work in a belief about the capacity of teachers to be leaders and for schools to be vibrant places of distributed leadership.
The proposed APPR reforms seem to make an already limited system of scoring even narrower, based on data that I imagine does little to reflect a holistic picture of a teacher, their teaching, and their students’ learning. While the use of these kinds of data for measuring teacher effectiveness have been questioned (see for instance this post and this post by Grant Wiggins), I have instead focused on how these reforms sit with my own beliefs about teacher learning.
Costa and Garmston in this paper talk about safety, but not comfort, being a prerequisite for learning, pointing out that the brain works in such a way that if we do not feel safe, we cannot think and learn. They note that sensory signals entering the brain travel first to the thalamus, then to the amygdala or threat detector, and then to the neocortex where thinking happens. “If threat, fear, pain even in the most minute portions are perceived, neurological and chemical processes occur which prepare the system for survival, not reflection.” While learning often happens in a space of what they call ‘disequilibrium’, or what I call the discomfort zone, there needs to be safety and trust for thinking, reflection and growth to occur. The New York teacher effectiveness system does not seem to allow for a safe environment of learning and growth, but rather opens up the potential for fear and a fight-or-flight response.
This notion of safety-but-disequilibrium is supported by Ellie Drago-Severson’s concept of high-support high-challenge ‘holding environments’ as the optimal environments for adult learning. By Dan Pink’s work on motivation which he notes is extinguished by punitive approaches. By David Rock’s work which shows that carrot-and-stick approaches result in resistance. In reflections by Robert Evans that teachers resist externally imposed change. By the Adaptive Schools foundational concepts of trust and of honouring both the individual and the system.
In light of how the brain works and how thinking and motivation are ignited, the New York teacher evaluation system, current and proposed, doesn’t make sense to me. It is a punitive deficit model which assumes that teachers are underperforming, unprofessional and in need of external measures to bring them up to scratch. In a recent paper, Dylan Wiliam points out that “each teacher has a better idea of what will improve the learning of their students, in their classroom, in the context of what they are teaching them, than anyone else.” Teachers should be trusted to be professionals and given the support, and challenge, to grown on their professional journeys.
My school’s teacher growth model is based on a belief in the capacity of teachers. It is based in a belief that everyone is coachable. That is, that teachers want the best for their students and that they are fully capable, with support, of setting goals, analysing data and improving their practice in ways which most benefit their students.
Wiggins is right when he says these reforms disempower teachers. Surely if we want teachers to get better, it isn’t scoring them we should be primarily concerned with, but growing them. Teachers should receive ongoing support to refine their practice and focus on becoming increasingly better at serving their students’ pastoral and learning needs. I absolutely agree with regular performance check-ins and goal setting work, but I also believe in teachers.
My hope for any school system would be that teachers are given opportunities for growth born out of a belief in their capacities and in their important work with our children, rather than public scorecards based on questionable measures.
New York, I’m thinking of you, your teachers, your school leaders and your students.