Saturday, August 18, 2012

Who Makes the Grade?

Evaluation in America the Beautiful/Hot/Pretty/Undatable

Do you….

a.     strongly disagree
b.     disagree
c.      tend to disagree
d.     agree
e.     tend to agree, with lemon
f.      agree strongly
g.     couldn’t give a shit
h.     once gave a shit but forgot why

Is your work…

a.     Outstanding (top 1%)
b.     Excellent (top 10%)
c.      Super (top 20%)
d.     Very good (top 30%)
e.     Good (top 40! Gold!)
f.      Fair (around 50%)
g.     Poor (below 50%)
h.     Why Do You Live? (below 0%)

How do I know which letter to choose when the survey asks me to deliver 1) my final grades, or 2) the performance “talent link” score, or 3) the promotion assessment?

Miss O’ raises the issue of evaluation this week at the prodding of alert reader Rob, a former student from my high school drama days. Because we Americans do an awful lot of statistical nuancing to prove points in what is essentially an agree/disagree, pass/fail world, evaluation metrics are hard to write, for as Mark Twain once remarked, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

See, Rob wants to know the best way to evaluate teachers. If not student test scores, for example, then what do we use to show that a teacher is doing her job?  (NOTE: I use “her” for a teacher, and here’s why: from the government website (boldface mine):

Demographic Characteristics
    Among full-time and part-time public school teachers in 2007–08, some 76 percent of public school teachers were female, 44 percent were under age 40, and 52 percent had a master’s or higher degree. Compared with public school teachers, a lower percentage of private school teachers were female (74 percent), were under age 40 (39 percent), and had a master’s or higher degree (38 percent). 

In addition, among both males and females, 83 percent of public school teachers were White, 7 percent each were Black or Hispanic, 1 percent each were Asian or of two or more races, and less than one percent each were Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native in 2007–08.

Interesting, isn’t it? Most teachers are women: The majority gender in the profession most consistently under fire for "not doing its job" and blamed for all of the nation's ills, is the same gender that finds itself under fire for wanting reproductive rights and insurance-covered contraception. This is probably not a coincidence. But today is about evaluation.)

Real World Marks: Pass/Fail

“I like it. It’s got a good beat. I can dance to it.” Such were the criteria for a song’s worth according to the late Dick Clark’s ol’ American Bandstand’s teen dance crowd. Pass/Fail. And really, isn’t that how we all evaluate?

A candidate wins or loses. A deal comes off or it doesn’t.  One team beats another. Life is pass/fail. And this makes creating “Evaluation Criteria” really hard for humans: It’s completely artificial.

Oh, sure, you can say why you only kind of liked a movie, or how a meal could have been better. But in the end, you saw the movie and liked it, or didn’t; you ate the dinner and enjoyed it, or not. We usually don't like to say anything much, because then there’s the fallout of the evaluation you pronounce.

So. What Did You Think?

This past week, for example, Miss O’ was having dinner with a friend, and we got into a hearty discussion of the state of American politics. I told him my definition of what it means to be a Liberal, which really resonated with him. A few days later, he wrote to say he had shared this definition with a friend, who wanted to post it as a status update. How should she phrase it, and did I want credit? I directed him to a blog I posted in September of 2011, called “Compare and Contrast,” which alludes to several subjects that will also come up in today’s post, and features the exact wording of my definition of a Liberal. Here is the link:

Later, as I was checking the Stats section of The Miss O’ Show (to see, you know, if anyone’s reading), I saw that that old blog o’ mine had had seven new hits during the course of the day. I messaged this friend to thank him for sending the link out. He wrote back, not “That’s great!” but instead, “How do you feel about that?” Um. Well, it’s a blog. I want people to read it. Right? He changed the subject.

What I realized—what he was not saying—was that he didn’t like my blog. He did not approve of my work. Even as a friend who loves me, he could not offer one supportive word about this piece of writing. In other words, in our world of pass/fail, my blog was a fail. Assessments like this—even unspoken ones—can make things awkward in friendships. (Cue wine entrance.)

Really, how many of us have been to shows where friends were performing, and the show was just BEYOND awful, and maybe they themselves—our dear friends—weren’t even good in it, and we have to say something. It’s a mortifying feeling: “Wow, you were IN THAT SHOW!” we say, forcing a smile. (They fail.)

But when we really like something—a show, an article, a song—we can easily say, “I really enjoyed watching/reading/hearing that,” and mean it. (They pass.)

All in All, There’s No Rubric in the Wall

We don’t use rubrics much in the day to day. Here’s a definition of rubric from the Wiki:
In education terminology, scoring rubric means "a standard of performance for a defined population".

Here is an example of a rubric I found when I went to Google Images and typed “rubric”:

As you can see, each of the questions is a judgment call—“How well does the work…?” sorts of things—and a range of point values is lined up—from 4 (Excellent) to 1 (Needs Work)—for evaluators to check off in easy-to-use boxes.  I’m not even saying it’s a bad rubric. I’m just pointing out that even there—and in the many others I looked at—subjective judgment is involved in its use. Look at your own Performance Review Rubics at work: Someone is judging.

I said before that scoring like this is artificial. Can you imagine if we showed up with a rubric to our friends’ arts events, or to a sales meeting, or to a day on the job, or even a party, and received and awarded scores of 1 to 4 based on our perception of the performances of others? 

"I give your casserole a 2." When exactly does anyone really need to know what we think at that level of detail?

Imagine if you didn’t just give a hug and a kiss to your kid, but received afterward a rating of the hug’s effectiveness in buoying your child’s mood? ("Enh, two stars.")

Even when scoring seems objective, it often isn’t. Olga Korbut’s routine on the uneven parallel bars in the 1972 Olympics in Munich was possibly the greatest gymnastics routine ever performed on that apparatus. Her score? 9.8.

A guy I knew in college in the early ’80s used to say after a group of us had finished dancing to a song at a party, “9.8, 9.6, and a 2.3 from the Soviet judge.”

Advice. No Consent.

I told a story in another blog—not sure which one—where a friend, Myra, told me about being called into her acting teacher’s office (she was a college senior). The professor said something like, “Myra, you have no talent.” He went on to explain that further training would be a waste not only of her time and money, but a waste of any acting coach’s time, and any audience’s time. Myra changed. I’m not sure she fully recovered from that blow, emotionally—the last time I saw her was 2002, and she looked like the shell of the young aspiring artist I had been friends with years before. Sure, a lot of life had happened, but something was just missing in her spirit.

Myra had said to me at the time it happened, “Lisa, no teacher has a right to tell a student not to dream.”

When I recounted this story, months ago, to my unhappy blog reader (and very talented man) above, he felt the professor had done the right thing. Possibly you agree: “But, Miss O’,” you say, “part of being a teacher is saying the hard stuff.”

Not if the hard stuff is, “Stop believing in yourself.” That is not an evaluative comment. That is a judgment from hell. No one appointed that professor “GOD,” and no one anointed that professor with so much wisdom of the ages so as to have the right to make a judgment of a person’s dreams and find them wanting.

My friend who agreed with the professor is, quite frankly, wrong. (I still love my friend.) The professor was absolutely and utterly in the wrong, morally, ethically, and personally. I’ll go to the mattresses on that one. That professor, on that call, is a big FAIL in Miss O's Book of Other People's Faults.

So what is right in a case like that? Suppose you really see this student—an aspiring artist—as talentless (it never occurring to you that your ideas of what it means to be talented might be a tad limited). Suppose the student asks, in conversation, “What would be a good next step for me?”

You look. You blink. You think: Is this in my job description? You have taught your curriculum to this student to the best of your ability, with established criteria, and you have assessed all your pupils according to your rubric. Even if this youth is (in your view) misguided, said youth still probably managed a B in your class for doing all that was expected of her under the circumstances.

What do you say? First of all, saying something isn’t our job. Her next step is not your call to make. Isn’t that a relief? You smile.

All a teacher has to do, at a time like this, is ask questions and ask them with joy and real curiosity: When are you happiest? When you imagine a future for yourself, where are you? Would you like to get more education or try to apprentice somewhere? Have you thought about moving to New York/L.A./Chicago and seeing what’s out there? Just live life for a few years, gain some experience, form a strong worldview? Where are your friends going? There are so many ways to bring out the dreams of a person without having to pronounce any judgment on those dreams.

You can also share observations: You have always seemed most connected when I see you doing ________. Is this interesting to you at all?

This is not evasion—it’s teaching. The biggest job of a teacher is not, contrary to popular opinion, to deliver knowledge as one shares lozenges from a Pez dispenser. Sure, you tell them stuff they don’t know. The main job of a teacher, though, is to help students to access their own way to finding knowledge. A teacher shares, for example, texts and how to read them; movies and how to watch them; techniques and how to apply them. But in the end, the student has to take what sticks and use it however she or he sees fit to use it. It’s her life, his life, not the teacher’s, and it’s no teacher’s call to say, Don’t dream of anything I cannot imagine.

Whenever I feel discouraged—when I get sad that someone I love doesn’t believe in me or my work—I try to remember this evaluation of Fred Astaire when he screen-tested in Hollywood for the first time. Aside from his being the greatest dancer of all time, Mr. Astaire is my favorite singer of standards, even more than Frank Sinatra:

Fred Astaire: Can't Sing, Can't Act. Balding. Can Dance a Little.”

And here’s a lovely Gershwin song that sums it all up: “They All Laughed.”

So How Are We to Evaluate a Teacher?

In trying to think about how one should evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher, all I could think to do was write about my favorite teachers and what made them awesome. My challenge then, will be to assign to each marvelous quality a number that a principal could use in an evaluation—make some kind of rubric out of it. I have no idea what is about to happen.

My Favorite Teachers: Miss Dotson (Grade 1), Mr. Hart (Grade 5), Miss Covington (Grade 7), Mr. Edwards (Grade 11), Mr. Corbin (Grade 12): A Compendium of Inspiration

NOTE: I remember all my teachers. Of the 50 or so I had in all my years of taxpayer-supported public school, these are the best. I could also easily name the worst. For the record, I believe firmly they were ALL worth experiencing.

Miss Dotson: High energy, really skinny, cat-eye glasses, looked like Mary Tyler Moore on speed; she visited the home of every single child in her class (how smart was that?); she asked once, “What is the Milky Way?” and seeing my wide smile as I raised my eager hand, she smiled back, “And don’t tell me it’s a candy bar!”; I couldn’t read a word when I entered first grade, and when I left I was in the top of the three reading groups (I still remember graduating from The Redskins to The Cardinals the last month of school); she asked me to tutor new kid Mark Romano on how to count from one to one hundred, to tutor him on reading—basically to tutor him, and that’s when I knew I was a born teacher. Kisses, Miss Dotson, who became Mrs. Larson, and whose retirement party I attended in the ol’ Featherstone Elementary multi-purpose room in 2002.

Mr. Hart: Laid back; calm; always wore a suit; the only male on the entire faculty, Principal David Kite called him “the onion in the petunia patch”; taught all of us to play chess, and at snack time during the year, as he ate his orange, every kid had to play him once in rotation (one match per snack time, which time lasted as long as the match), and after your first turn was up, you could give it away, which I did, because I preferred to dance to 45s brought in by Terri Trelinskie, who was an incredible dancer (and is now a music teacher!); half of his kids were (I realize now) special education students—emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or otherwise hard to reach, but the rest of us didn't know it—isn't that something?; gave out Coupons (pronounced KOOP-ons, not “Cue-pons” which drove my mom nuts) as rewards for good deeds and grades, with a regular auction so we could bid on things like lunch outside; taught us the American justice system by implementing Class Court, with a regular rotation of judges (I was taken to court by Randall Bowler for hitting him; I pled guilty, and grinned, because he deserved it; I believe I was fined 10 coupons); was given for the first time in my life actual praise for my good grades (well, it was kind of back-handed praise—it may surprise you to know Miss O’ was not a model student: He yelled after one grading period, “I mean, Lisa O’Hara has the best grades in this class!” as if to say, “C’mon guys, for love of fuck, Lisa O’Hara has the best grades! Get with it!”); we did unforgettable units: on Japan, complete with bowing and haiku we wrote and put on cloth scrolls we hung on the bulletin board; oceanography (my and Lori German’s flying fish sculpture was a thing of beauty; after we hung all of them from the overhead lights, Mr. Hart had us swim through our ocean like divers);  archaeology (using milk cartons and some kind of apoxie or something, in which we buried a small object, we learned, using little chisels (which must be illegal now), how to “dig”—I screamed when I found my fossil, and Mr. Hart was so sweet about it); when the natives got restless, he’d say, “Let’s go outside and play football,” or “Who feels like racing around the school?” and astonishingly, after ten minutes of outside activity, we’d all come back inside a lot more focused for math (and I learned all my times tables that year!); and he and his class ran the annual school variety show. I was an usher and I got to move colored gels around on the overhead projector/spotlight. What a year!

Miss Covington: (I have to open with what I really think is true: She couldn’t stand me. Everything about me—my personality, my way of thinking, my looks (especially my hair)—was met with a quizzical look, or disdain. It didn’t matter; I existed.) English and Social Studies were taught as a block. Her blackboard was covered with notes for us to take on grammar or history—I learned everything there is to know about grammar; I learned all about poetry; I studied the election; I learned about the Donner Party—I will never forget her intoning that in the final days, the party chose human flesh over animal: “The oxen was too tough to eat”; she told stories of prejudice in the South, or how funeral directors during the Depression would often find the “corpse” was only in a deep coma, but would embalm it anyway, because they needed the money—she always sat atop her desk, crossed-legged (and she was no small woman) when she talked; she made Cyndi Sears do a four-count burpee every time she said “Okay” as a verbal filler; she let us write stories; she was the first teacher to show me how to improve my writing, noting at the top of my descriptive poem, “The Dance”—every line of which began, “There are…”—“You might vary the beginnings of your sentences”—revelatory; she once had Mrs. Perillo next door come in and listen to a bunch of us sing the Preamble of the Constitution, as many of us learned from History Rock on ABC Saturday mornings, and in return Mrs. Perillo told us a joke the punch line of which was, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes?”; it was the year I found real emotional connection, from gasps of horror to uncontrollable laughter, to be the order of every day in class; and aside from the poems we learned—many of which I can still recite—I remember reading nothing else.

Mr. Edwards: Junior year English, and because we were on year-round school we changed rooms every six weeks, and so all the walls were beige and poster-free and horrid: No matter. “You need to read this poem for the edification of your soul,” he'd explain whenever a student balked at American Literature's troubling depressive side; he explained that American materialism originated with the Puritans: "You know you are among the elect if you own a Cadillac"; his first name being Charles, we (affectionately) called him “Chuckie” because the Ricki Lee Jones song, “Chuck E.’s in Love” was a big hit—he'd roll his eyes and sigh, graciously; we read “Thanatopsis” for extra credit only; saw the video of Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst; read Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—well, the non-sex parts; Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Albee’s The Sandbox; learned grammar top to bottom once again so that we could completely diagram Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, which was our test, and I got 100%; when Scott Lichtman and I shared a trap table up front, we used to make faces at Mr. Edwards or crack quiet jokes (such as MST3K might do at a movie) to the point that Uncle Chuckie had to take us out into the hallway and say, “I am losing my dignity, and this must stop,” and we really did stop, because we really respected him, only to have him look at us during a lesson and turn red and say, “Stop it,” and we’d say, “We didn’t say anything,” and he’d laugh, “I know, but you’re thinking it!”; and he got me to take typing seriously, telling me on my research paper that while my handwriting was nice, it was not scholarly (and when we returned a year later to collect our research papers after graduation, he looked and then said, in that guttural and sweet, “Uh oh” of his: “This is going to sound like a 'dog ate my homework story,' but you know I drive a convertible…” and to this day, our papers are somewhere among the trees of I-95, owing to weak adhesive tape on the storage box. He says).

Mr. Corbin: Advanced Placement English 12: Scariest teacher I ever had: He just knew so much about everything—books, architecture, art, geography, Virginia history, the best colleges, good foods, fashion, pop culture—and he really let you have it if you weren’t curious enough to find out more about it, and then he’d chuckle; we studied Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and oh my god EVERYTHING; I did my research paper on Oscar Wilde and he was pleased; and we did presentations and recitations, such as the first 14 lines of the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and the entire “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet; and we listened to Eliot reading “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Mr. Corbin grinned when I said that I didn’t think he read his own work aloud very well; I wrote unsolicited rhyming parodies of Oedipus the King and other readings, so he asked me to write a "class prologue" to an updated Canterbury Tales (he also nominated me for the English Department Award, though I didn't winamazing he nominated me when I only ever managed a C during first semester and was grateful). I didn’t bother to take the AP test (though Mr. C insists I must have). I just didn’t want to know how much I didn't know (it could also have been because the test cost $40 to take, and my family didn't have it), and if I did take that test, I blanked out on it.

What Do All These Awesome and Wildly Different Teachers Have in Common?

·      Curiosity
·      Love of and great knowledge of subject matter
·      Interest in who we were as humans and learners, sometimes
·      Expectations that we wanted to learn all this stuff, or should
want to
·      Disdain, or little patience, anyway, for the bored
·      Variety of reading and other material
·      Variety of assessments (tests and quizzes, projects and presentations)
·      A willingness to let us play when we got tired
·      Showed us who they were and what they personally cared about, sometimes
·      Fun Fact: All were under forty, and at least two were in their twenties, but I later knew two of them as colleagues, and when they retired around age 60, they were still as awesome.

How Would I Grade Them?


4   Excellent
3   Good
2 Satisfactory
1 Needs Work
Personal Grace (Curiosity/
Passion/Sense of Humor/Self-Knowledge)

Knowledge of Subject Matter

Knowledge of All Kinds of Stuff Beyond Subject Matter

Ability to Make All of the Subject Stuff Relate to the Beyond-the-Subject Stuff, and Vice Versa

Variety of Lessons

Variety of Assessments

Effective Lesson Planning

Innovation When All Lesson Plans Are Shot to Hell by Snowstorm

Instructional Standards Hits (3 per standard per year) (Because it’s the law.)

Engagement of/ and in spite of Students

Engagement with Students

General Magical Properties of Classroom Management

The Mysterious Thing That Makes Kids Want to Knock Themselves the Fuck OUT for This Teacher

My Teacher Evaluation Rubric is, of course, subjective. All rubrics are subjective, whatever the number assignment they yield. In the end, just as any curriculum is only as good as the person teaching it, just so any rubric is only as good as the person doing the evaluation. That person, in the case of a school, is the Principal or Assistant Principal. Therefore, when Miss O’ harps on the need for effective school leadership, first and foremost—that is what she means. And how in the hell is one person going to bear witness to real teaching awesomeness or suckiness in only three 20 to 45-minute classroom visitations, when everyone is on his or her best behavior? Well, one can't. Real evaluation has to be done over time, and often occurs in chats in the hallway, observations on the fly, interactions at a collegial level, and, finally, on gut instinct. A good leader knows to beware of rumors, and yet be aware of a teacher who is too popular too quickly, as well as forgiving of one who is grumbled about for being "too hard." As Mr. Edwards used to tell the parents on Back to School Night, "I'll make a deal with you: If you promise to believe only fifty percent of what your child says about me, I'll promise to believe only fifty percent of what your child says about you."

Why Not Use Student Test Scores?

I've said it a thousand times: A kid in sophomore English has been on the planet 15 years before I ever meet him or her. So when he or she fails the test that year, do I take down with me all the teachers he or she had prior to me, in every school and in every state? But that's not even the important thing. This notion that learning sticks at the moment of encounter is moronic. Most of the stuff I taught did not kick in for kids until years afterward. I'd get visits from kids in their senior year of high school, or even in college: You changed me, they'd say. But they hadn't known it until then, and every epiphany is different (I learned the word epiphany when I read Joyce in Mr. Corbin's class). (P.S. I wrote Mr. Corbin a letter the first year I started teaching, thanking him for teaching me how to write. I didn't realize how important he'd been until I started teaching. And remember, I'd had a C.)

The fact is, most of us don't learn stuff the first time we are introduced to it, not when we are tested on it, and, believe it or not, not even during exam review. Often, we can't get it—that new hard concept, that deep meaning in the text, that elusive skill—for weeks, months, or years. (Fred Astaire rehearsed routines for hundreds of hours so the routine could be filmed in one continuous take. That's right: One take. The whole thing. Weeks of rehearsal, for one 3-minute routine. And he was a genius.) Think of algebra, or (in my case) geometry, where no teacher was going to get through, because my brain could not accept the information until two years later. Why? Who knows? That's what learning is like. If my geometry teacher had been evaluated on a test score of mine that year? Well, call it a career!

Life is learn as you go, pass or fail, with a lot of fudging in between. And, provided you are doing your best, with a true heart, what is wrong with that? When I think of teaching—my own and that of the teachers who mattered most—what I come away with is that the important thing—the ideal, anyway—is to engender in students a desire to dance out into the world and learn even more, so they can give to others the benefit of what they know. 

So. What is the true measure of a wonderful teacher? I think I’ll let Fred show you.

Grade THAT. (Who's got the last laugh now?) 

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