The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A teacher evaluation session out of ‘Star Wars’

By Carol Burris

“I hope I’m not sounding like an elitist,” my friend the music director said. “But I’ve got a problem with being ‘trained.’ You train a puppy to not jump on the couch and a parakeet to poop on the cage paper…but people? Don’t we educate people?”

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Calibration,” he replied. “They want to calibrate us with a Calibration Event… But I am not a machine. I’m a man, not a printer.”

I worried I might need the school nurse.

The Music Man explained. He had just returned from Teacher Evaluator Year 2 training.  I stopped worrying about his mental hygiene. This was a healthy response, I thought. “So the class began with a video,” he said.

“Not the one that likened the teacher evaluation plan to a plane being built in the air again?” I groaned.

“No.  It was an old ‘think different’ commercial from Apple,” he said. “But here’s the thing. After they made us watch a video about how important it is to think differently, the rest of the day they tried to make us all think the same…The commercial said ‘think out of the box’ but they wanted us to be in the same box…to sync up with the Master ‘oda.”

I tried to listen to the last word as the second period bell rang. “Why would they want us to sync with the Master Yoda?” I wondered as the Music Man sadly walked away.

Two days later I would understand.  It was my time to be calibrated, and off to BOCES [Boards of Cooperative Educational Services] I went.  Apparently, the reformers of New York had been having Calibration Events with ambassadors who even got to attend a Gates Ambassador Reception.  Now it was their turn to bring the Calibration Event to us.

“Wow”, I thought, “This is sounding more like Star Wars all the time.”  I was disappointed.  I was not to be synced with the Master Yoda but rather with the Master Coder, the recently calibrated Ambassador told our class.

Master Coder? Our curiosity was piqued. An administrator from another district asked who the Master Coder was. “He is someone in Albany; we do not know who,” was the reply. “Well, at least they had the sense not to call him the Master Rater,” a colleague chuckled. I sighed and dropped my head.

The trainers went on to explain why we were there. We would have four sessions to prepare for Calibration Day.  We would learn “the tool,” and watch teaching videos for two days. Day Three—the pre-test. Day Four—Calibration Day and the Calibration Event.  We would see a video of a teacher, use the rubric to rate her, and then try to sync up with the Master Coder.

“If you miss one or two, you might not be misaligned,” one of the Ambassadors reassured us.  The Music Man was right—they surely have mistaken us for printers.

A colleague from another district asked, “Does the video pause on Calibration Day?” The Ambassador replied, “I am not sure, but I am going to speak for the tool…..”

I stopped listening to the reply.  “I am in the Star Wars Cantina,” I thought.

Before calibrating up with the videos, we first needed to be taught to avoid “bias words” in our observations. “The tool” has a list of bias words and if you use them, “the tool” will turn the bias words red. “Do you think it will give us a shock?” a colleague nervously asked me.  “Only the Master Coder knows,” I replied.  The Ambassador of the Tool gave examples.

Expressive—“The teacher read the poem in an expressive way.”  We can’t say that anymore—it’s judgmental.

Monotone—“Can we say the reading was not monotone?” someone asked. “No, no, no. monotone is a bias word” Ambassador  #2 replied.

Challenging?—Never, nunca y jamas, nie wieder.

Bias, bias everywhere.  “Will my skill improve? Will I be scored on the teaching evidence I include?” you could hear the frustration in the questioner’s voice.

“As long as we get the right number with the Master Coder, that is all that matters. The ultimate goal is you want to be calibrated” was the reply.  I prayed a Wookie would enter the room and save us.

But there would be no rescue, no reprieve. So I thought of Madeline Hunter and a time when teaching was both an art and a science. How she abhorred it when anyone tried to create a checklist from her work. She understood the importance of classroom feeling tone in student learning—described by bias words like patience and warmth.  She often said the only thing that a teacher MUST do in every lesson was to think, and to never humiliate a child.

Now, we are driven by data, and checklists and mindless calibration—all being done in the name of a reform that fritters away tax dollars on tests, test prep and calibration events.  I stopped listening and searched for the source of the calibration obsession.  I found this:

Well, at least the mystery is solved. I now know who the Master Coder is.  It must be the unemployed and much maligned Clippy.

“Hey it looks like you’re watching a teacher….”