Want To Ruin Teaching? Give ratings. Read.
Our graduates returned to HVA-High for the day to represent their new schools at our college fair. We are so proud of our alumni!
Our teachers make school so exciting – here they are dressed as rockstars for an honor roll ceremony.
On data day, our teachers analyze data from first term exams to determine individual student needs and how to improve Instruction. SO proud of our teachers!
Building blocks are timeless fun – and a great way to observe and improve communication between students.
By DEBORAH KENNY
Published: October 14, 2012
AS the founder of a charter school network in Harlem, I’ve seen firsthand the nuances inherent in teacher evaluation. A few years ago, for instance, we decided not to renew the contract of one of our teachers despite the fact that his students performed exceptionally well on the state exam.
We kept hearing directly from students and parents that he was mean and derided the children who needed the most help. The teacher also regularly complained about problems during faculty meetings without offering solutions. Three of our strongest teachers confided to the principal that they were reluctantly considering leaving because his negativity was making everyone miserable.
There has been much discussion of the question of how to evaluate teachers; it was one of the biggest sticking points in the recent teachers’ strike in Chicago. For more than a decade I’ve been a strong proponent of teacher accountability. I’ve advocated for ending tenure and other rules that get in the way of holding educators responsible for the achievement of their students. Indeed, the teachers in my schools — Harlem Village Academies — all work with employment-at-will contracts because we believe accountability is an underlying prerequisite to running an effective school. The problem is that, unlike charters, most schools are prohibited by law from holding teachers accountable at all.
But the solution being considered by many states — having the government evaluate individual teachers — is a terrible idea that undermines principals and is demeaning to teachers. If our schools had been required to use a state-run teacher evaluation system, the teacher we let go would have been rated at the top of the scale.
Education and political leaders across the country are currently trying to decide how to evaluate teachers. Some states are pushing for legislation to sort teachers into categories using unreliable mathematical calculations based on student test scores. Others have hired external evaluators who pop into classrooms with checklists to monitor and rate teachers. In all these scenarios, principals have only partial authority, with their judgments factored into a formula.
This type of system shows a profound lack of understanding of leadership. Principals need to create a culture of trust, teamwork and candid feedback that is essential to running an excellent school. Leadership is about hiring great people and empowering them, and requires a delicate balance of evaluation and encouragement. At Harlem Village Academies we give teachers an enormous amount of freedom and respect. As one of our seventh-grade reading teachers told me: “It’s exhilarating to be trusted. It makes me feel like I can be the kind of teacher I had always dreamed about becoming: funny, interesting, effective and energetic.”
Some of the new government proposals for evaluating teachers, with their checklists, rankings and ratings, have been described as businesslike, but that is just not true. Successful companies do not publicly rate thousands of employees from a central office database; they don’t use systems to take the place of human judgment. They trust their managers to nurture and build great teams, then hold the managers accountable for results.
In the same way, we should hold principals strictly accountable for school performance and allow them to make all personnel decisions. That can’t be done by adhering to rigid formulas. There is no formula for quantifying compassion, creativity, intellectual curiosity or any number of other traits that make a group of teachers motivate one another and inspire greatness in their students. Principals must be empowered to use everything they know about their faculty — including student achievement data — to determine which teachers they will retain, promote or, when necessary, let go. This is how every successful enterprise functions.
A government-run teacher evaluation bureaucracy will make it impossible to attract great teachers and will diminish the motivation of the ones we have. It will make teaching so scripted and controlled that we won’t be able to attract smart, passionate people. Everyone says we should treat teachers as professionals, but then they promote top-down policies that are insulting to serious educators.
If we don’t change course in the coming years, these bureaucratic systems that treat teachers like low-level workers will become self-fulfilling. As the great educational thinker Theodore R. Sizer put it, “Eventually, hierarchical bureaucracy will be totally self-validating: virtually all teachers will be semi-competent.”
The direction of education reform in the next few years will shape public education for generations to come. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly said that in the next decade, “over 1.6 million teachers will retire,” and our country will be hiring 1.6 million new teachers. We will blow that opportunity if we create bureaucratic systems that discourage the smartest, most talented people from entering the profession.
March 10, 2013
By Deborah Kenny
Last year, as Harlem Village Academies prepared to open new elementary schools, our principals visited dozens of kindergarten classrooms. The upper income schools focused mostly on active play, interesting discussions and crafts, including papier-mache projects that delighted children for hours. In the lower income schools we saw regimented academics, reward-and-punishment behavior systems and top-down instruction. In one South Bronx classroom, the only time children spoke during the course of three hours was to repeat drills of the sounds of letters over and over.
Why the disparity? Many educators are placing the blame squarely on the Common Core — national learning standards recently adopted by 45 states and the District and supported by the Obama administration — and asserting that they lead to poor-quality teaching and take all the joy out of kindergarten.
One Brooklyn teacher who attempted to teach the Common Core told the New York Post that her kindergartners broke down in tears, anxious and frustrated. Early-childhood development experts such as Nancy Carlsson-Paige argue that the standards will lead to an increase in rote learning and a decrease in active play and exploration. If so, we should heed her warning.
The question, however, is whether the new standards should be blamed for poor quality instruction. It’s an important question, as the Common Core will be the reason for spending billions of dollars for new textbooks, state tests, teacher evaluation systems and more.
The standards were designed to elevate the quality of instruction in our country: to teach students to think independently, grapple with difficult texts, solve problems and explain their thinking in a clear and compelling way. This is a noble vision. But its attainment depends entirely on the execution. In fact, the authors of the Common Core write, “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”
Take vocabulary, for example. The Common Core standards state that kindergarten students should be able to “distinguish shades of meaning among verbs that describe some general action (e.g., walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.” Imagine a classroom full of 5-year-olds marching, strutting, walking and prancing for 10 minutes to different kinds of music while laughing and learning vocabulary. Imagine, further, that this activity is organically integrated into a meaningful project or a theme-based unit that lights up the child’s love of learning. So while some schools might choose to teach vocabulary in a rote, boring way, clearly the standards are not to blame.
As Zoltan Sarda, an elementary school teacher with 22 years of experience, said to me last month, “The textbook companies are trying to box the big ideas of the Common Core into little disjoined pieces. But just because they are written in a linear way, that doesn’t mean you have to teach in a linear way.” Sarda, who now guides teachers at High Tech High in San Diego, once had his kindergartners build a life-size paper model of how humans would need to be designed in order to fly. This project taught them gravity, anatomy, speed, addition and subtraction, and measurement — all included in the standards — and the children loved it.
When I told one of our kindergarten teachers that there was a growing concern that the standards were ruining kindergarten, she laughed: “I didn’t know standards had that much power!”
So the standards are neither the problem nor the solution. The issue is how to use the standards to teach well. How do we do this at Harlem Village Academies?
First, we hire the smartest people out there and, when necessary, let go those who are not up to par. This is more important than ever, because the Common Core is immensely challenging and requires teachers to make intelligent, nuanced decisions about instruction during every lesson, every day. The only way to teach at this level is for every school to empower its principal to select, nurture and develop an outstanding faculty and then to hold the principal accountable for results.
In our schools, we prioritize teacher development over curriculum development. You do not make teachers better by handing them a packaged curriculum and sending them to a few days of training. Instead, teachers need time to analyze the standards, practice different teaching strategies, learn from mentors, collaborate with colleagues, observe one another, look at student work together, reflect on why certain approaches work better than others, learn from mistakes and continually improve. None of this is fast or easy. But it is how teachers become great.
Above all, we share a vision of engaging, sophisticated education. When a friend visited recently, she saw 27 children dancing in one kindergarten classroom. In another, she saw children singing a song about numbers. And in a third, the children were spread out in different parts of the room — some sprawled on the floor reading, some coloring and others playing with blocks. During our reading and writing period, each child chooses which learning activities to pursue that day. “This looks just like my son’s kindergarten,” she said. “But I pay $37,000 a year!”
Our classrooms are less structured and less orderly, sometimes even a bit chaotic. That’s how kindergarten should feel. Play is not a break from learning or a way to fill time for the little ones: play, imagination and discovery are how kindergartners learn.
Those of us who spend our years fighting for social justice should be as passionate about pedagogy as we are about politics. And that starts with equal access to a quality kindergarten education.
Deborah Kenny is founder and chief executive of Harlem Village Academies and author of “Born to Rise.”