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Answer Sheet
Posted at 08:30 AM ET, 06/14/2011

How Socrates would fare on new teacher evaluation plan

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This was written by Diana Senechal, a former New York City public school teacher, who has written for Education Week, American Educator, Educational Leadership, The Answer Sheet, and numerous other blogs. Her book, “Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture,” will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November 2011. She can be reached at dsenechal@earthlink.net.

By Diana Senechal

The upstart Gates-funded organization Educators 4 Excellence has just put forth a proposal for teacher evaluations in New York City. They would accord 25 percent of the evaluation to student value-added growth data; 15 percent to data from local assessments; 30 percent to administrator observations; 15 percent to independent outside observations; 10 percent to student surveys; and 5 percent to support from the community.

The observations, they say, should follow a rubric. What sort of rubric should this be? The proposal states:

Observations should focus on three main criteria:

1. Observable teacher behaviors that have been demonstrated to impact student learning. For example, open-ended questions are more effective at improving student learning than closed questions.

2. Student behaviors in response to specific teacher behaviors and overall student engagement.

3. Teacher language that is specific and appropriate to the grade level and content according to taxonomy, such as Bloom’s. For example, kindergarten teachers should use different language than high school biology teachers.

Let’s see how Socrates might fare under these conditions. As I recall, he asked a fair number of closed questions. He did this to show his interlocutors a contradiction between what they assumed was true and what they subsequently reasoned to be true.

Here’s an excerpt from Book 1 of Plato’s Republic (translated by G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve). Let’s pretend, now, that we’re “independent outside observers” listening in on this conversation.

Do horses become better or worse when they are harmed?

Worse.

With respect to the virtue that makes dogs good or the one that makes horses good?

The one that makes horses good.

And when dogs are harmed, they become worse in the virtue that makes dogs good, not horses?

Necessarily.

Then won’t we say the same about human beings, too, that when they are harmed they become worse in human virtue?

Indeed.

But isn’t justice human virtue?

Yes, certainly.

Then people who are harmed must become more unjust?

So it seems.

Uh-oh. Definitely too many closed questions. In fact, I don’t hear a single open-ended question among them. We need to send Socrates to a PD. That is, if we don’t fire him.

But that’s only part of the rubric. Let’s look at student behaviors. Does Socrates have good classroom management? Are his own behaviors evoking the appropriate student behaviors? Let’s see.

While we were speaking, Thrasymachus had tried many times to take over the discussion but was restrained by those sitting near him, who wanted to hear our argument to the end.

Sounds like the students are engaged. That’s good. But what’s going on with this Thrasymachus?

When we paused after what I’d just said, however, he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He coiled himself up like a wild beast about to spring, and he hurled himself at us as if to tear us to pieces.

Socrates clearly has trouble controlling Thrasymachus’s behavior. Which behaviors of his own are leading to this? He mentions that he paused. That’s the problem right there. He needs to keep things fast-paced and productive. Wait time is permissible, but not when students become disengaged. Also, it appears that Thrasymachus didn’t have anything to do. Students should never be left without something to do. We will have to send Socrates a copy of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion . (That is, if we don’t fire him.) In the meantime, his rating on this part of the rubric is low, too.

But he can still redeem himself with age-appropriate vocabulary. Let’s run some readability formulas on the dialogue above and see whether Socrates is using academic vocabulary at the right level. The passage gets a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 2.80. That’s bad. But other formulas rank it a little higher. Average them out, and you have a grade level of 4.58. Still a very poor showing, Socrates. And if you ask me, words like “dog” and “horse” don’t seem very high up on the taxonomy.

Still, the evaluations count for only 45 percent of the evaluation! Surely his value-added will make up for the poor rating... oh, wait, there isn’t any. Well, what about community support? Oh, that’s right, they gave him hemlock. Well, at least there are student surveys, then. He’s fired anyway, but maybe one of his former students will soften the blow by saying something nice.

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By  |  08:30 AM ET, 06/14/2011

 
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