Why Aren’t They Listening to Us? Teacher Evaluation, “Sticky Ideas” and the Battle for Hearts and Minds

Are doctors denigrated for the high rates of diabetes? Are the police officers responsible for crimes? Why are teachers responsible for the lack of parenting? For the impact of poverty?

How can teachers be “graded” on student progress when we have no control over students out of school experiences?

Why aren’t “they” listening to us?

The educational community: parents, principals, teachers and advocates all feel the current government education policies are seriously flawed; no matter how much they express their opinions no one seems to be listening to their cries.

From blog comments to Diane Ravitch tweets the drumbeat continues, without apparent impact.

I was chatting with my neighbor, we agree on politics, he was worrying about Rick “Sanatorium,” and brought up the teacher evaluation plan.

“Teachers should be responsible for students outcomes, on my job if sales dip it’s my fault.”

For the wider public policies that the school community abhors, resonate,

… Siena Research Institute, asked respondents, “Do you support or oppose the Governor’s plan to link school aid increases to the implementation of an enhanced teacher evaluation process?” Seventy-one percent said they support that plan…

The support was evenly split between respondents in New York City and the rest of the state and was especially high among black New Yorkers (77 percent) and young people between 18 and 34 (78 percent). Households with union members (61 percent)…

The New York Times begins an editorial  supporting the agreement on a teacher evaluation plan with the phrase, Thanks to an agreement brokered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The Governor’s support of a teacher evaluation system based on 40% student test scores is strongly supported by the public, and, the governor is more popular than everyone, except Jeremy Lin!

The art of politics centers on framing issues – presenting an issue so that the public supports the issue, or, questions the policies of the “other guy.”

The famous “Where’s the beef” Wendy commercial was used by democratic presidential aspirant Walter Mondale to question the “new ideas” of his opponent, Gary Hart.

Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of “Made to Stick” have studied why some ideas are so effective, why they embed in the public mind, why they “stick.”

Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus public-health scares circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas-businessmen, educators, politicians, journalists, and others—struggle to make their ideas “stick.”

The Heaths’ study of “sticky ideas”  points to six commonalities,

  • Simple: Simplicity is achieved when an idea is stripped down to its core, to the most essential elements that make it work …. Simple does not have to mean short (but it helps); what is important is that the single most important thing be highlighted.
  • Unexpected: The best ideas represent a break from the everyday, the ordinary, the status quo. They become sticky when they interject themselves into our established patterns, forcing us to sit up and take notice. Once our attention is grabbed, sticky ideas refuse to let go, holding our interest by creating in us a need to discover the outcome, …
  • Concrete: Abstraction is the enemy of stickiness ….. Some of the stickiest ideas are fables, myths, and legends — … The piling on of specific details — who, what, where, when, why, in journalism-speak — makes ideas become realities and allows us to directly relate to them. They also make ideas more memorable — every fable has a patronizing moral attached to it, but it’s the image of the fox leaping to reach the sweet, ripe grapes that sticks with us.
  • Credible: Sticky ideas give us a reason to believe they’re true (even when they’re not) … Statistics are useful, though they suffer from a lack of concreteness; sticky ideas make statistics accessible, bringing them too a human scale that makes their significance clear. Another source of credibility is personal experience, ideas that are clear to anyone who has come across a situation before ….
  • Emotional: Give your audience a reason to care about your idea. Sticky ideas resonate with us on a level below our immediate consciousness — … Sticky ideas appeal to our wishes, desires, and hopes, and interlock with our image of ourselves.
  • Stories: Why do we go to the trouble of telling fables and myths when we could just as easily tell people the moral? …. stories act as simulation chambers, allowing us to come to their morals on our own terms … stories provide us with a surplus of meaning, allowing us to extend ideas beyond their original domains — which only increases their stickiness.

My neighbor continued our conversation, “Bloomberg has been a good mayor, but,  he really screwed up the schools.”

A “sticky idea:” Bloomberg really screwed up the schools.

The hundreds of demonstrations, almost daily newspaper coverage showing parents of every race and ethnicity angrily confronting the mayor, the criticism by other electeds, Mike Winerip’s NY Times articles, and, finally the UFT TV infomercials, all resulted in the embedding of a sticky idea: Bloomberg screwed up the schools.

Once upon a time we waited for the weekly Time and Newsweek magazines, we moved from a weekly news cycle to a 24-hour news cycle to an instantaneous delivery of news and opinion, frequently indistinguishable from each other.

Ask a group of under-30’s how they get their news, none, that’s right, none, will say from the print media. The Internet, Facebook, Twitter, cyberspace spews forth nano-bits of information.

Some bits of news/editorial/fable/myth stick while others blow away in the cyber winds.

We have heard over and over again: “A great teacher for three years in a row impacts a student for a lifetime.”

It is a “sticky myth,” no matter how much research challenges the idea,  (see detailed refutation here) it “sticks” and drives educational policy.

The Tennessee teacher evaluation plan stumbles badly in its first year (see NY Times article here ), a veteran teacher whacks the NYC evaluation plan in a NY Daily News op ed, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, no friend of teacher unions, lauds the leader of the AFT,

The breakthrough experiment in New Haven offers a glimpse of an education future that is less rancorous. It’s a tribute to the savvy of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and as shrewd a union leader as any I’ve seen. She realized that the unions were alienating their allies, and she is trying to change the narrative.

In spite of the New York State teacher evaluation agreement more and more “bits” of info are having doubts about the efficacy of giving too much credence to test scores.

Maybe I’m too hopeful, but, perhaps, just perhaps the glue is loosening and the stickiness of measuring teachers by student growth is waning.

6 responses to “Why Aren’t They Listening to Us? Teacher Evaluation, “Sticky Ideas” and the Battle for Hearts and Minds

  1. Only by improving stusdent achievemnt can we hope to irradicate poverty. As long as we use poverty to absolve ourselves for responsibility for student outcomes, we will not have credibility as a profession.


    • Opportunities come first. Then there is hope and support that fosters achievement and realistic dreams. As a profession, education cannot take on poverty alone and it does not carry that burden alone either. There is politics, culture, family and economy as well. Stop pretending. And stop pretending to be Eric Nadelstern; he would never sound like such a twit.


  2. Let’s get rid of poverty first.
    You can’t learn if you are hungry. You can’t remember what you learned if your parents are screaming at one another all night over money. Your little soul gets all crimped and crumpled if you always afraid. If you don’t have the simple good things in life as a child-yummy food, a soft, warm bed in a quiet neighborhood, a fun place to play, contented parents-you will not be able to strive for the important things in life as an adult because you won’t know what they are.
    Let’s get rid of poverty first.


  3. Nadelstern’s comment is another “sticky” idea the educational deformers have sold. “Teachers use poverty as an excuse for their poor performance.” LIke other overly simplified issues, thie is not what really happens in classrooms. Teachers have students and work with them. Students have issues in their lives, poverty, broiken families, tragedies, and so that interfere with their ability to focus on learning while in school. The young person who is hungry or fears what s/he will find when s/he gets home at the end of the day, cannot fully concentrate on school. The young person whoi is homeless may not have a place to do homework. These ar enot excuses for teachers but relaities that must be dealt with.

    Whether education is the way to eliminate poverty remains to be seen. Certainly the young people who graduated from college in 2008 and 2009 and cannot find jobs might argue with that statement.
    Good teaching can and should be evaluated. Those evaluations have to take into consideration both what the teacher is doing and what the students bring to the classroom. Standardized tests fail to evaluate either of those elements, and are poor measures of achievement in and of themselves. Reading tests do not measure whether students read for information or pleasure and what they retain from that kind of reading. Reading tests can be gamed by teaching students how to analyze the test and look for the answers which may improve their scores but does not improve their reading skills.

    Travel through the city schools now as the date for the English Language Arts test approaches and you will find classroom after classroom doing test prep. Reading short passages and learning how to identify the kind of question and find the answer. When all else fails, students are told to guess. Is that teaching reading, or motivating students to read more?

    Is it any wonder that teachers object on many levels to being evaluated by test scores? Yet the sticky idea that tests are measures of achievement persists.

    Our real job as educators is to make the public want to understand the complex issues and to view the Madison Avenue sales pitches of candidates with some suspicion. When Governor Cuomo says he wants to turn education from a process into results, shouldn’t we all be arguing that education is a process. Don’t we want to create critical thinkers and lifelong learners? How do we do that when the basis for all are decisions are the results on tests that are not good measures of those things.


  4. Eric:

    Education starts at home. Students in my school come in hungry, sleepy, and without the necessary tools to learn and that is the prime cause of their poor academic achievement.

    Just keep on blaming teachers for things beyond their control. and show everyone how clueless you are oif what is going on in the classroom.


  5. The argument I hear at the Admin. and Network(Superintendent) level is that there are many factors that change student outcomes. We can’t control what happens in the home, we can’t control the economy, but we can control the teachers. Or at least fire the ones we can’t.


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