Teacher Evaluation: The test, the road sign and Alan Watts

Those of you of a certain age may remember Alan Watts, the eccentric and brilliant author/philosopher whose books on Zen Buddhism inspired thousands of flower-children to search for self-knowledge. Though most of his admirers are now more likely occupied with other, less spiritual aspects of their well-being than with Zen, his insights are still as pertinent as ever. Which, of course, brings me to the hotly contested topic of teacher evaluation and what Mr. Watts would say about it.

One of the shibboleths of the political class pushing for “stricter accountability” is that teacher evaluation must be increasingly linked to student test scores. It doesn’t matter that this is a terrible idea that is chasing wonderful people out of the profession, because it has the things that politicians really love: It’s based on arithmetic, it has pretensions of being evidence-based and, above all, it’s a blunt instrument — because nothing pleases a politician more than a blunt instrument. Especially one that can be used upon a class of people who stubbornly resist accountability, like teachers. (By the way, don’t misread this as a screed against tests. I’m not against them, only against their misuse. A test is an important instrument best used as a diagnostic tool rather than an absolute indicator of success. If you’re not familiar with Campbell’s Law, please take a look here. There should be no doubt that ratcheting up the stakes on tests will inevitably send us all down the road to Atlanta.)

OK, here’s a story paraphrased from Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen: A guy is driving down the highway headed for Chicago, sweet home, Chicago. Up ahead on the right is a bright, green highway sign with the word CHICAGO and an arrow pointing straight up. Should the guy pull to the side of the road and climb up the sign? Of course not. It’s just a sign, you dummy, not the destination!

The moral for us in education: We have to stop worshipping the signs and keep our eyes on the destination. The goal of education cannot possibly be to create the greatest generation of test-takers the world has ever seen. The goal has to be to help shape a generation that will be able to help solve the vexing, chronic and intractable problems of the world. If our focus is only on the bottom line (academic outcomes) we’re barking up the wrong destination.

In the charter school world our kids are subject to the same accountability measures as kids in district schools, and most of us would probably argue that they are held to even stricter accountability. We all bought into that when we signed off on our charter agreements. But, fortunately for us, we are as of yet free from any requirements regarding how we evaluate our teachers. So, for my buddies in the charter world, this discursive narrative on Alan Watts, the road sign and the test, may read like something out of the Martian Chronicles – because state mandated teacher evaluations don’t apply to us! Indeed, they do not, but they still matter and, because we’re all stakeholders in public education, we all have skin in that game, whether or not the rules apply directly to us. And if the folks in district public schools want some insight into our secret sauce, we should come right out with it: we are free to evaluate our staff in a way that makes sense to our school and our mission.

The day someone comes to our school to tell us how we must evaluate our teachers is the day I’m walking away from it all. We may have signed on to a never-ending and difficult job when we entered our charter agreement but, in exchange, we were granted a modicum of autonomy. And, at the heart of this autonomy is our freedom to describe to our school leaders and their freedom to describe to their teaching staff what success for our school looks like.

We’re all about accountability, and the great majority of teachers are as well. But if that accountability is going to be circumscribed by the narrowest of parameters we ultimately are not being accountable to the goals that got us into this game to begin with.

By Steve Zimmerman, Co-Executive Director

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