Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What is "Exemplary?" A Distinction Without A Difference

Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released its report on educator evaluation ratings from school year 2014-15.  To my delight, there are still a number of schools and districts where there were no teachers rated exemplary.  To my disappointment, though, many schools and districts do have teachers rated exemplary.

So. . .  why should anyone be delighted about schools and districts with no exemplary teachers?  Notice that I didn't say that those schools and districts HAD no exemplary teachers, just that they had no teachers rated exemplary.  I'm sure those schools and districts do indeed have many exemplary teachers.  Since one of them is my former district, I know that there are many exemplary teachers in that district, in all schools.

What I'm delighted about is that some districts and schools are refusing to play the damaging ratings game in which the DESE wants schools to engage. As in other professions, the process of evaluation is complex.  There really is no such thing as a perfect teacher (or a perfect lawyer, a perfect doctor. . .).  There are many excellent teachers, but as with all people, each has his/her own strengths and weaknesses.  In many school systems, particularly the affluent ones, there are many more excellent teachers than the DESE would be comfortable with having labeled "exemplary."  (Although in published FAQs, the DESE has stated that there is no particular percentage quota or limit for the designation, other communications have implied that the expected percentage is somewhere in the single digits.)  In contrast, in my former school, I would estimate that at least 80% of the faculty are "excellent" teachers -- all human, of course, with different strengths and weaknesses, as we all are.  I would imagine that this is true in most schools and districts.

For the vast majority of teachers who are excellent teachers in most respects, with some weaknesses, splitting hairs and designating some as "exemplary" and the rest as merely "proficient" has no useful purpose.  What could possibly be a good result of this practice?  Creating divisiveness and competition where collaboration is most important? Isn't it far better to acknowledge each person's strengths and excellent skills while helping each improve his/her weaknesses?  (Note that no one is perfect.)  Thus, as an evaluator I only used three categories -- "proficient," "needs improvement," and "unsatisfactory," while complimenting individual excellences and helping with individual weaknesses -- and I am glad to see from the DESE report that there are at least some schools and districts that appear to be doing the same thing.

Meanwhile, I would caution anyone from coming to any general conclusions from the numbers of "exemplary" teachers.  These numbers amount to an artificial distinction and are not any sort of valid measurement of the excellent teachers in any particular school or district.

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