American Promise

I was fortunate to watch the full version of American Promise over the December break. Everyone will have the chance to watch it in February on PBS. I am extraordinarily grateful to the parents and to the Dalton School for participating in this multi-year effort. I highly recommend the film.

A film that runs a 12 year course is one that cannot pretend to a single unifying vision. It is enough to evoke certain reflections, to raise particular issues about race and otherness. The filmmakers take care not to case blame or demonize any one person or group in particular for the disappointments that students and parents feel at various points. There are triumphs as well.

As an educator watching the documentary, I kept thinking about how best to foster quality communication between teachers, administrators, and parents. How can schools better support parent communities such as the African-American parent group that gathered in the middle of the film? When and how can schools send teachers and administrators to visit some of the communities and households that they serve? How do we all maximize transparency and open communication?

All parties seemed to strive for partnership in this film. Again, I am thankful that they shared their journeys with us.

“What are you trying to accomplish and how do you know you’re accomplishing it?”

So I have finally caught up with the Fall 2013 edition of Independent School Magazine. I mistakenly judged the magazine based on a particular image, and that image deterred me from picking it up earlier. However, vacation has given me time to reconsider my initial impression. Count me in as a major fan.

This issue focuses on teacher evaluation and support. In his anchor article, Robert Evans does not shy away from revealing the flaws of many independent schools (my title for this post comes from that article). Here are some key excerpts.

The plain fact is that large numbers of independent schools have weak traditions of performance appraisal and professional development …

The best public schools not only hire teachers who are already trained in pedagogy (teaching methods, not just curriculum), they offer them both continuing oversight of performance and continuing opportunities for advanced learning about instruction and assessment (again, not just about curriculum). Independent schools, by contrast, hire many people with little pedagogical training, offer them comparatively little supervision, evaluation, and professional development, and tend to concentrate little of what they do offer on classroom methodology …

The teaching I get to see [in independent schools] is not usually poor, but it is often pedestrian. Nonetheless, students generally do well. They ought to. There is abundant evidence that non-school factors (socioeconomic status, level of parents’ education, family stability, and the like) play a much larger role in most children’s achievement than do school inputs. And independent school students are the most teachable in America: they are typically bright, motivated, and well-behaved, and they typically come from supportive, upper-middle-class families. Plus, they are generally placed in small classes and their teachers generally have small pupil loads. Given all this, the essential question is not whether the outcomes are good, but are they as good as they should be?

Ouch. Double ouch. No resting on our laurels, folks!

I love the ideas inside the pages of I.S. Lisa Cetroni, Beth Miller, and April Waylett do a great job laying out several quality instructional coaching and peer support structures. I am intrigued by Erica Hamlin’s model of multi-year evaluation and compensation at University Prep in Seattle. I am grateful for the McDonogh School and others for promoting The Folio Collaborative. Thanks as well to Marc Baker and others for bringing up the complex role of the head of school in the area of instructional evaluation. So many great practices to consider.

Good people have written volumes on the subject of teacher evaluation. Most have understandably focused on public schools, and the topic often becomes political between unions and districts, giving independent school educators a convenient excuse to sidestep the conversation altogether. But surely we could all agree that all teachers deserve to be evaluated via a system that adheres to the basic standards that Grant Wiggins recently elucidated. Standards can and should be the same for everyone in the field, although we might have some different priorities (I will share some of mine in a future post).

Autonomy in the classroom is a great asset. But so is professionalism, peer collaboration, and institutionally-supported growth and renewal.

What would I change about this issue of I.S.? The cover.

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For me, this image evokes the notion of a static, one-time classroom evaluation measuring irrelevant information — or worse. Doesn’t a wooden ruler measuring head size raise the spectre of scientific racism? As a history teacher I am probably more sensitive to that interpretation than others. Regardless, this cover image does little to convey the initiatives described within. Readers, let the words speak for themselves this time around.

ADDENDUM: Clearly, the editors intended a humorous entry into the magazine. I am 100% positive that they had no ill intent. In my reckoning, their plan just did not work out as originally intended.