TMAO Rides Again

Maybe? The post reads like Kilian Betlach (neé TMAO) but I’m surprised to find his byline on a blog called “The Future of Teaching” given his skeptical stance towards your edu-technology of choice.

Regardless, “Kilian” puts words to an escalating fear of mine: that advocates of ed-technology have grown weary of extending (what they have presumed to be) carrots to classroom teachers and are starting now to see the appeal of Arne Duncan’s sticks:

My knee wants to say it’s a little afraid that the reform 2.0 folks are lining up with those who promote an excellence agenda, one that says our top kids must be prepared to be better than the top kids from other countries, and never mind what’s happening (or not) in Washington Heights, the RGV, or Deep East Oakland. This isn’t necessarily so, and it isn’t unavoidable, but my knee wants to constantly shout that as we try to (re)imagine what the public schools of 2030 will look, we must do so from the perspective of those schools have never well served.

It’s hard for me to distinguish (for one example) this Scott McLeod post from a press release from the desk of Michelle Rhee. Both drip with the same disdain for teachers who would have enacted their (McLeod and Rhee’s) preferred vision for public schooling years ago were it not for their (the teachers’) willful, clannish embrace of mediocrity.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Before everyone goes ballistic on me, let me explain my thinking in a bit more detail… :)

    I’m not disdainful of teachers at all. As someone who works with school leaders and teachers, however, I do have trouble stomaching statements like the ones I quoted because they seem to remove ALL accountability from the teaching profession. I do NOT think seniority is the end all-be all of teacher evaluation, nor do I think that student results on bubble tests or administrator evaluations are either. However, we must use SOMETHING rather than NOTHING. The best teacher evaluation system is likely going to be some kind of 360-degree idea where student evaluations, peer evaluations, administrator evaluations, and, yes, student academic performance date all are informative. Will this be costly and time-consuming? Yep. But the alternative – to simply reward (in a variety of ways) those with the most seat time – makes no sense to me, particularly given the academic research showing the ceiling effect of seniority on teacher “effectiveness” after 8-10 years or so (if I’m remembering correctly).

    If, as advocated, you throw out both administrator evaluations and student performance results, my question in my blog post was “What remains (besides seniority, which to me is fairly unpalatable)?” We need to think more broadly and creatively. Who’s got the ideal model (and why aren’t we doing it)?

  2. I think a lot of people in actual policy-making and legislative positions, and certainly a lot of people in aggressive think-tank advocacy positions, could legitimately read the original McLeod post as an argument for laying off teachers according to student “achievement” data. It’s a pretty in-your-face post, which is not always a bad quality in post-writing.

    Certainly Thomas Ash, in the Plain Dealer article, isn’t advocating that teachers not be evaluated comprehensively. I think he’s making a point about laying off teachers according to student test scores as well as laying teachers off according to subjective measures– a weak wording of a good idea. I bet he has some interesting things to say about it, more than the “verbiage” in the article. I think he’s truly talking about subjective measures.

    It’s a common practice for teacher evaluations to be based on less than an hour of observation over the course of a year. What you’ve got there is a de facto subjective measure. I know principals that resent teachers for generating even a single parent complaint, and I know great, effective teachers who make kids work a little harder than some parents want, generating parent complaints.

    I know 30 year veteran reading teachers who get evaluated by 29 year-old former PE teachers. The system is not nirvana; we shouldn’t look for a pony in it during layoffs.

    Whatever. Thomas Ash was interviewed by a reporter; the article doesn’t summarize his life’s work around accountability. I’m pretty sure he’s not an advocate for removing all accountability from teachers. The sky is not falling.

    Seniority factors into layoff order for good reasons. Are veteran teachers kept on faculties with glowing or moderately good evaluations? Sometimes. That’s a different issue. But I think that if the entire evaluation system has integrity, then seniority means a lot more than “seat time,” a term that could reasonably be interpreted as disdain, even though it wasn’t meant to communicate disdain.

    What if someone laid off distinguished and quite brilliant education writers by looking at their least judicious posts?

    In any event, no system for laying off people is going to produce results that are perceived as fair or even particularly thoughtful by all parties. There really isn’t an ideal model for laying off people you would otherwise keep around. When we get embroiled in arguments about whether or not to retain senior employees, that’s a symptom of some deeper resentment, if you ask me.

    Anyway, I’m with you. I hear a lot of anger roiling under a lot of my colleagues’ 2.0-themed writing and blogging. There’s this undercurrent that people who use less technology just need to go, and now. There’s also a bit of the reinvented wheel– I just listened to a presentation about project-based learning. All well and good, but there was definitely a tone about project-based learning having just been invented and an unspoken indictment of the rest of the universe that isn’t doing this particular model. There’s always this crisis– in other people’s schools; it’s a habit of speech in these 2.0 conversations that I’m pretty sure is being received as encouragement by the people who would privatize all of public education as a matter of policy.

    On a very rare occasion, I’ll see a teacher demonstrating some tech-enriched activity with actual children, and I’ll think, “Neat. Unique. Must imitate that.” But much more often I just hear hectoring and crisis-talk and generalized calls for the reform of some horrible system that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the schools I know.

    It needed to be pointed out.

  3. Soooooo…’s the scoop from the front lines. Still in the thick of it, so don’t really want to give myself away exactly. I work in the toughest neighborhood of a large urban district. I’m in my second year of teaching, although I have tons of experience in education. I work 80 hours a week, including keeping my students after school and having them come in on Saturdays because our school day is atrociously short.

    I create my own curriculum; I teach all subjects. My students come to school dressed professionally and ready and eager to learn. (No, they did not walk in the door in September this way.) They have won awards, delivered speeches to large groups, and are doing quite nicely on standardized tests like the ones they are taking right now (thus affording me the opportunity to write this).

    I work very closely with my families to ensure success for my students. I spend thousands of dollars (literally) on my classroom each year. My classroom is bright, engaging, and homey, housing over 1,500 of my own books and a wide range of materials.

    I write curriculum that a prominent college uses in schools it works with. I have been asked to write articles and to co-write a book.

    For all this, I have been rewarded with summary dismissal so that a teacher openly brags that she is only biding her time until retirement can take my job through the excess pool. She has no intention of doing anything I am doing now. She has no intention of doing anything at all. She is guaranteed a job due to union rules. And that union, by the way, extracts the exact same amount of dues from me, a peon with no rights, as that teacher who will cause my students to learn nothing and loathe school next year. A cycle is broken one year, only to be promulgated the next. (I loop.)

    Would someone be so kind as to explain to me how that policy is in the best interest of children?

  4. Oh wait – I forgot the tech part. We blog. We podcast. I have provided four Macs of my own for classroom use, since our school department – don’t even get me started on that. We twitter as we are able (some students have capacity, some don’t). We Skype with a classroom in London. etc. on and on…

  5. And don’t even get me started about my experiences with evaluations. I’ll just sum it up as saying, evaluations from those who don’t share your values in teaching are either useless or worse.

  6. Hey Josh,

    “Crappy things” will never cease altogether. That doesn’t mean we need to stick with a system that fails children over and over again.

    My “do-nothing” teacher would never get a job “full of privileged kids in a rich suburb.” She wouldn’t even get an interview. Her resume would rule her out immediately. A high school student taking a career preparation class would create a better resume. She doesn’t need a resume to take my job. She doesn’t even need to interview. HR is required to place her somewhere. It would never occur to her to try to get a job where she’d have to go through a real process.

    And I guess I wasn’t clear. I work in that school “full of underprivileged kids below the poverty line, probably non-white.” I’m guessing you’ve never worked in a system like ours, where dedicated teachers kill themselves every day to educate their students. That “do-nothing” teacher is taking my job. She knows that most parents won’t hold her accountable, because they don’t have the wherewithal. Those who do have the wherewithal leave for charter schools (which, of course, bleeds the system dry) so they don’t get that “do-nothing” teacher.

    I am not the only teacher. I am friends with many, many idealistic, hard-working, curious, creative young teachers who are in the same position – actually worse, since I have a lot of other experience in education to prove myself with, while they do not. We lose far too many new teachers while we protect…well, I won’t offer descriptors.

    I guess I didn’t make myself clear enough. Teacher who sits all day and does nothing vs. teacher who is constantly on the move, always thinking, always doing. In what universe (or school system) would anyone choose the first teacher over the second? Yet principal are forced to take that first teacher. In what other field is an employer forced to hire an unqualified employee?

    There is no perfect system. That doesn’t mean we should be sticking with such a blatantly flawed system that it is bringing down the entire profession. Not only is the public against us, but it is just plain simplistic to say this is the solution we’ll stick with – and wrong. In an urban system like mine, students don’t have strong family learning experiences to fall back on, to make up for teacher who aren’t willing to step up. They can’t afford it. And they shouldn’t have to. Josh, do you want to come on over and introduce the new teacher to their families and explain why I won’t be back next year as they expected? Just a thought…

    As for bad evaluations, all I can say is welcome to the real world. Anyone who does not work for themselves runs through that minefield on a regular basis. Figure it out. Why should my students have to pay because people get bad evaluations sometimes? Change jobs, then. Go to a different school. If you’re really a good teacher, you will find another job – just like I have to now.

    It’s over, people. My long-term fear is that the union, in its insistence on protecting “teachers” who should have been out of the classroom long ago, will not be around at all in five years. I still believe we need a union. We need wage and other protection (although that, too, is a whole other story). It is just crystal clear that the union has gone way too far and is opening the door very wide for the Rhees to get through.

    That said, my students are finishing up their latest round of testing (four full weeks of it since early April), so it is back to teaching I go. Now, there’s something the union should be focusing on. Alas, a different topic altogether…

  7. I’m guessing you’ve never worked in a system like ours, where dedicated teachers kill themselves every day to educate their students.

    You guess wrong.

    But, I’ll back off. I’m not in your exact system, so you could be right, maybe your union has gone too far and broken things.

    I’m surrounded by teachers who are tired, cynical, and vocally would probably claim to be just “doing nothing until they can retire”. What they’re really doing is the same thing they’ve done for decades – not really nothing, just nothing new or innovative. While I wouldn’t teach that way, it doesn’t mean they’re being an instructional vacuum. It just means they’re bored, they’re recycling the same curriculum and assessments over and over, and they don’t feel it’s worth trying to break out of that boredom this late in the game.

    I’m also in a political climate where our Ministry of Education is run by an incredibly economically-conservative government who masquerades as “liberal” while undermining public education under the guise of “accountability”. They hand data over to free-market freaks who take our precious quantifications of student learning and manipulate them into scores that sing the praises of wealthy private schools while mocking the schools who are doing the hard work in tough places.

    If accountability measures are actually something that could be kept under control, and do more good than harm, in your neck of the world, great. Where I’m at, all I can see is the damage being done.

  8. p.s. And, I’m really sorry you lost your job. You sound like an amazing teacher, and you deserve better. My wife teaches as well, and has lost a good job in a situation like yours. Sorry for sounding like I didn’t care – I know it sucks.

  9. So.

    I am unsatisfied with my current evaluation system. I was evaluated this year and don’t think I learned or grew as much as I would like.

    Among my summer plans is to outline my own evaluation system and convince some of my colleagues next year to try it out and to help me improve.

    How would you want to be evaluated? It would have to be robust so that most educators could give you meaningful feedback. It would have to combine craft with larger ideas. It can’t take too much time on the part of the evaluator, but more of my time. What about student feedback? Testing?

  10. Thank you for your comments, Josh. I want to be clear that I didn’t intend the pullout comment to sound so harsh. It is just endlessly frustrating. And as you point out, it isn’t just the union or the evaluation system or the under- or non-performing teachers. It is driven by evaluations, as you pointed out, executed by administrators who haven’t worked with children since 1962 and have no clue what they’re talking about, the fact that schools are becoming wholly-owned subsidiaries of Pearson and other publishing companies that also have no clue, and held hostage to standards so numerous as to be impossible to fully address (CA being a great example), followed by standardized tests, the results of which we are not even allowed to see. If students, teachers, schools, and school systems are going to be judged by the results of a test, shouldn’t that graded test be made available (well before the school year ends) to all? Shouldn’t I be able to see exactly what score that corporation gave my students on, say, an open response question? All of these elements are good ideas in and of themselves. The execution just sucks.

    I thought I got into this to teach. I love to teach. I love to write curriculum. I’m a planning geek. I love to open the world to my students, who inhabit a four block radius, hiding out for a very real fear of being shot. I love to help them learn to think deeply and question everything, to worship math because it is magical, to know how to write in order to get ahead in this world and make themselves understood, to read constantly and widely, to see the science of life, to know what has come before and what is going on now, to know all that is available technologically and discern what is useful and what is not and then take advantage of it, to know and appreciate the beauty and soul of all that and music, art, movement…etc.

    I do all that, but with the constant distraction of all of the above – and now, looking for another job for no reason other than that people who DON’T want to teach can be guaranteed a job. And as I sit and write this in my classroom, the ubiquitous sirens wail outside in a neighborhood my students will never get out of without the strongest teachers America has to offer. It is desperately sad to me.

  11. Scott, thanks for clarifying. If you didn’t check out Tim’s comment, I hope you will. I appreciate this note, in particular:

    Tim: I hear a lot of anger roiling under a lot of my colleagues’ 2.0-themed writing and blogging. There’s this undercurrent that people who use less technology just need to go, and now. […] There’s always this crisis— in other people’s schools; it’s a habit of speech in these 2.0 conversations that I’m pretty sure is being received as encouragement by the people who would privatize all of public education as a matter of policy.

    On a very rare occasion, I’ll see a teacher demonstrating some tech-enriched activity with actual children, and I’ll think, “Neat. Unique. Must imitate that.” But much more often I just hear hectoring and crisis-talk and generalized calls for the reform of some horrible system that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the schools I know.

    There are serious issues to resolve in teacher quality. There is also a certain pedagogy you’d like to see in K12 schools. There is certainly overlap between the two, but perhaps you overestimate it. Certainly, my opinion is that the overlap isn’t large enough to deserve the tone of your post I’ve quoted here.

  12. I do think we (teachers) need to step up and agree that solely using seniority as a means of evaluation stinks. If admins would do their jobs and even evaluate teachers just enough to fire the truly incompetent ones we would avoid the truly tragic situations like Louise relates above. Peer evaluation, administrative observation, student improvement, any and all of these things could be used to create a system of evaluation better than simply seniority.

    Math in the News

  13. I think this entire discussion thread is a sign of the times. Given the dire financial picture faced in this state (California) and others, people are engaging is what my dh terms as “bottom-feeding”. There is a call to “save” money by going after some group that is causing us to waste it.

    So instead of asking why we are laying off so many teachers (remember, I got a pink slip with NINE years of seniority, that’s mighty deep to be going into your teaching pool), and if there are some better choices to be made, we start pitting low seniority teachers against higher seniority teachers. It’s always the eager young teacher vs. the burnt-out veteran, which gives great optics, but has little in common with reality. I’m 45 and got a layoff notice (since taken back), I’m not some kid. Frankly, I’ve seen lousy teaching (imho) up and down the seniority ladder. What I haven’t seen is someone calling b.s. on this false dichotomy. Here are some better choices:

    1. Administrators need to “man up” and do their job to move out dead wood, and I don’t mean teachers who refuse to use technology later than a transparency projector, but teachers who are not doing their job. They have the tools as most of the contracts in the state have PAR (Peer Assistance Review) programs. They need to observe and write it up, which many prefer to avoid by “passing” teachers off to another site.

    2. We need to pay for education and quit engaging in magical thinking. We guarantee a % of state spending for education (, but we’re still pushing being 47th in per pupil spending and heading downward (

    Louise, your professional life sucks, I’m not going to put whipped cream and cherry on it. I know your pain at least second hand. I’m not gonna go into details, cause this is the Internet, but I’ve seen something similar happen (bad teacher with seniority stays, while good teachers without are pink slipped), but I’m pretty clear about where the blame lay, with the admin who didn’t have the huevos to make a case of firing the SOB.

  14. I still don’t understand why the heart of teacher evaluation isn’t other teachers. I mean, I understand in technical, fact-of-the-current-state-of-education terms, but not in how-can-we-really-make-things-better terms. Though I will admit that I sometimes wonder who’s more afraid of that type of empowerment: those currently in power, or the teachers.

  15. Guess what? This isn’t only happening in our school system. I currently work for another state entity that deals with large groups of people and our goal is to get them to change and grow (I’m working on finishing my teaching degree). I’ll have twenty years in next year and I have seen exactly what Louise is experiencing in her school. We have a union and our job is protected by seniority. It doesn’t matter how horrible of a worker you are, last in is first out. We are seriously facing losing a lot of excellent employees and keeping a lot of horrible employees due to budget cutbacks.

    Having put both my sons through school as well as subbing as a second job, I have seen a lot of bad teachers that only have a job because of seniority–and they are bad because they know that they cannot be fired (easily)! Why should we work hard when there is no threat hanging over our heads of being fired. Some people need a fire under them to keep them working hard. It’s the teachers that work hard regardless that we need more of–unfortunately, those types of people are leaving the teaching profession because they are tired of working next to someone who just doesn’t care! We need to return to the days when we were rewarded for being a good worker and let go when we stopped performing to an acceptable level. Maybe then, the hard workers would return to teaching because ALL teachers are hard workers! Our children deserve for us to try something different!