Who is Clay Christensen and what is disruptive innovation in education?
Christensen is a professor in the Harvard Business School and the intellectual force behind the current education reform movement. The professor proffers that education has been basically unchanged for decades, a traditional classroom model, very little has changed including little improvement in achievement. Christensen acolytes argue that the traditional model must be “disrupted.” A wide range of examples: placing schools in competition; public, private, charter, parochial and home-schooling through a voucher system. Traditional instruction must be replaced by an iteration of personalized learning in the form of computer-based learning and, impediments to removing “bad” teacher removed.
The “disruptors’ include the political leadership, from the White House to state capitals. The $4.4 billion in competitive state grants, the Race to the Top (RttT), is a prime example. The lure of federal dollars to disrupt the traditional systems; RttT required the creation and expansion of charter schools as well as creating a student test score-based teacher evaluation system.
The New Teacher Project (TNTP), an advocacy organization, a “disrupter” organization, conducted a survey of school districts and a report – The Widget Effect. The findings:
Effective teachers are the key to student success, yet our school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives.
The 2009 report, surveyed fifteen schools districts across four states points to the absence formalized evaluation systems resulting in virtually all teachers rated satisfactory with few classroom observations. For the TNTP there was no sorting of teachers by ability, no one is fired and no one is identified as being an exemplary teacher.
In districts that use binary evaluation ratings (generally “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”), more than 99% of teachers receive the satisfactory rating, Districts that use a broader range of rating options do little better; in their districts, 94% of teachers receive one of the top two ratings and less than 1% are rated unsatisfactory.
Since the release of the report the reformers, the “disruptors,’ have been successful, enormously successful, in convincing, coercing, luring states into highly structured teacher evaluation systems; to identify the high performers (merit pay) and prune away the low performers.
As part of their winning Race to the Top proposal New York State designed a multiple measures teacher evaluation system: 60% of a teacher score would be supervisory observations based on a rubric selected by the school district (Danielson, Marzano, Marshall and others), 20% based on a student growth data (VAM) on state grades 3-8 test scores and 20% on a locally negotiated metric – which could be test scores or other measures of student learning (MOSL). The data is pumped into a dense, extremely dense mathematical algorithm and all teachers receive a score that translates in a letter grade on the HEDI spectrum: Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective. The teacher evaluation plan, called the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) has been amended a number of times – the current plan prohibits the use of student test scores for four years, is called the “matrix.”
The inclusion of a value-added measurement, the student test score algorithm has been sharply criticized by a range of scholars as well as teacher organizations, and, a state court, in a non-precedent setting decision, found the use “arbitrary and capricious.”
Millions of dollars to create a multiple measures teacher evaluation plan and the result: 1% of teachers are ineffective – the same as the Widget Effect report.
In 2009 The New Teacher Project bemoaned that only 1% of teachers were rated “unsatisfactory” and seven years later the New York State APPR plan found, you guessed it: once again, only 1%.of teachers rated “ineffective.”
Millions of dollars to create a teacher evaluation system, a host of “experts,” the application of dense mathematical formulations and the percentage of teachers rated ineffective is unchanged.
This couldn’t possibly be right!! … so say the disruptors.
In a recently released report, The Widget Effect Revisited: Teacher Evaluation Reforms and the Distribution of Teacher Effectiveness (February, 2016), the authors conducted surveys of newly designed teacher evaluation plans across a number of states and interviewed principals.
On the new plans, “… less than 3% of teachers were rated below Proficient”
The raters, the principals, also reported,
“…evaluators perceive more than three times as many teachers in their school as below Proficient than they rate as such.”
In lengthy interviews the principals expressed the reasons for not rating more teachers as below Proficient.
* Time constraints (“It takes too much time away from running a school”)
* Teacher potential and motivation (“Fear of the discouraging of teachers”)
* Personal discomfort (“I have a difficult time telling teachers they’re failing”)
* Racial tensions (“Very difficult for a White principal to rate Black teachers poorly”)
* Quality of replacements (“I can’t find adequate replacements”)
* Voluntary departures (“I rate them Proficient and they leave – a deal is made”
* Burdensome dismissal processes (“The process is too complex and time consuming”)
Is the “problem” too many “below Proficient” teachers or “below Proficient” principals?
What the authors failed to investigate, admittedly not the purpose of the study,
* Inter-rater reliability: do the raters from school to school use the same rubrics, and, are they competent to assess teacher performance?
* The bell-curve conundrum: is the lowest rated teacher in the school “below Proficient” when compared with all other teachers in the district? In other words, is it “arbitrary and capacious” to establish a system that guarantees that the lowest performer in a school must be below Proficient? After all, they may be more proficient than teachers in other schools in the district.
A second baseman on a major league team may be the “least proficient” among major leaguers and in the top 1% of all second baseman across colleges and minor leagues.
I know the idea is disquieting – perhaps only 1% of teachers actually are ineffective.
Prospective teachers must be accepted by a college and meet standards set by the Council on Accreditation of Teacher Preparation (CAEP), teachers must pass a number of nationally recognized pre-service exams, pass interviews by principals/hiring committees, teach a demonstration lesson and serve a probationary period as an at-will employee. It should not be surprising that very few teachers who survive the rigorous pre-screening end up as “below Proficient.”
Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman coined the term zombie idea: a zombie idea is “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.”
The disruptor “bad teacher” solution to increasing student achievement is an example of a zombie idea – in spite of reams of evidence the idea refuses to die.
What is so depressing is when compared to teacher attrition the “bad” teacher argument pales – in the lowest achieving, highest poverty schools about half of all teachers leave within five years, and, we have a pretty good idea of why they leave: the way they’re treated.
Susan Moore Johnson, at the Next Generation of Teachers Project at Harvard examines the issue of teacher attrition in the highest poverty schools in detail. Yes, teachers commonly leave to wealthier, whiter schools; however, they are not fleeing the students, they are fleeing the working conditions.
If we know how to make significant differences (“Improve working conditions in the poorest school”), if we’ve identified the core problem (“Teacher morale and treatment”), why don’t we address the solution?
Those zombies are tough to kill off.