Building an Ecosystem

“I think at a certain point we have to be honest,” says Valerie Braimah.  She’s  currently the Executive Director of City Charter Schools, but that’s not why I’m dying to talk to her.   I’m dying to talk to her because a couple of years ago she was the Vice President of Instruction at the Alliance for College Ready Public schools, the largest non-profit charter system in Los Angeles.  There, she headed up the implementation of a large-scale teacher evaluation program called The College-Ready Promise, or TCRP, funded by the Gates Foundation and rolled out over the course of several years at four charter systems: the Alliance, Aspire, PUC and Green Dot, where I taught.

The evaluation model Valerie helped develop and implement was very similar to the one in which I participated during my last two years of teaching.  To say that I am obsessed with TCRP evaluations would be an understatement.

Here’s how they worked: during the implementation of TCRP, our administrators were trained to observe us teaching for a 100-minute class period each semester, with a six-page rubric, or chart, at the heart of which was a method of teaching in which every day, every single class needed a clear, concrete, measurable objective written on the board, a skill that could finish the sentence “Students will be able to…” and would be tested at the end of class to generate “student data” that you would then analyze.

The idea that a literary discussion or drama class required a concrete, measurable goal capped with a quiz at the end was bewildering to me.  My observations, with their rating scores and lists of specific, physical required behaviors, exhausted and demoralized me so much that afterwards I hardly could function without sending voluminous deranged emails to my friends.  And what if the rubrics were right–what if in fact I was simply not the right kind of person to be teaching children?  I couldn’t even maintain this brisk, fact-checking goal-oriented persona for 100 minutes.  How in the world would I maintain it throughout a career?  I knew that caring about any of this was idiotic, which only made me feel worse.

The whole wretched experience culminated in a final observation interview where my evaluator told me that I had only rated a “2” out of “4” in the area of “questioning” in my Creative Writing class because the objective written on the board was to “understand the use of the word subtext and demonstrate that understanding by analyzing a script,” but I had failed to ask my students to list the multiple ways subtext might manifest physically and to specify the exact reasons a person might use subtext in conversation.

I was so frustrated that I actually burst into tears.  “How in the world will that help my students learn to write?” I asked, sobbing.

“I have no idea,” said my evaluator.  And then she, too, started crying.

So we cried for a while, and then we hugged, and then I left, but I still have a “2” in “questioning,” though overall I believe I managed (I think, barely) to squeak out a Highly Effective rating, which sounds like a quality you might look for in a robot you’d buy to fix your carburetor but in fact reflects the mountains of appalling bullshit I wrote in order to score a mitigating “4” in the section where I analyzed student data.  In other words, it truly made me crazy.

All of this is to say that I’m dying to talk to Valerie about TCRP evaluations.  And when she says she’s going to be honest, she’s not kidding. “This teacher evaluation thing is profoundly flawed,” she tells me, straight-up.  After her time with TCRP, she no longer believes in any one-size fits all teacher evaluation system but instead believes individual schools need to create their own, possibly with one tailored to each individual teacher.  “We were trying to create a career path for teachers.  We thought it would help them if they knew what was expected.  Instead what it ends up boiling down to is a framework that prevents teachers from behaving like professionals and prevents principals from leading.”

I’m nearly breathless at hearing this idea stated so bluntly.  Based on my own experience, I could not agree more.  With a few months of distance, I can see now that being in a situation in which the complex, challenging and meaningful career of teaching was re-envisioned as a laundry list of physical motions and outcomes, all of which were “bucketed” as “evidence” and assigned numeric ratings that would ultimately be translated into cash, was for me profoundly demeaning no matter how hard I tried to remember that the people I worked with did not really experience each other that way.

Valerie agrees.  “We wanted to create a system that was people-proof,” she says.  “But I’m realizing I can’t believe in the idea of a people-proof school.  And I’m gonna be honest: on a large scale, I don’t know what the solution is.  There’s no one way to be successful.  If I had to name one thing, it would be reconceptualizing what leadership look like and building an ecosystem towards that.”

I’m fascinated by her use of the word “ecosystem,” which feels so alive.  Where did she get that metaphor?

“I think I just made it up right now,” she says, smiling.  But to her, the metaphor is much better than the notion of a “framework,” something used by current evaluation systems.  “A framework has this boxed rigidity,” she says.  “We need the concept of balance and change.”  She’s come to believe that it’s a bad idea to try to create a single list of qualities that every teacher should demonstrate.  Instead, with the idea that a school is an ecosystem, every teacher and staff member needs to bring unique personal strengths and knowledge to the school as a whole, creating a vital community of different perspectives.  “The question shouldn’t be ‘is this teacher going to reach every kid?’” she says.  “The question should be, ‘is there someone on this campus who can reach this kid?’”

For Valerie, the answer—if there is one—lies in teamwork.  If a great principal can bring together a team of teachers with a complementary set of strengths, who can then work together closely to blend their subject areas, their individual personalities and their understanding of the needs of the community in which they teach, then maybe you’ll have the foundation for building a great school.  But it will look different in every community because all of those factors will always be different.  Like an ecosystem, it will always be evolving, shaped by outside factors and the growth of the lives within.

How do you measure this ecosystem?  “I don’t know how you get there,” she says simply.  “We’re not a sales force.  You can’t give us metrics.”  Different communities have different needs.  In a high-poverty community, “you have kids whose affective filters are in overload.  You have some kids coming in with PTSD.  You need a much higher student-counselor ratio, you need to focus on social-emotional needs.   We don’t even remotely invest in these communities.  So how do we come up with one answer?”  She sighs, thinking.  “I used to be able to churn out stuff like this.  But none of this educational jargon captures how you feel when you walk into a school.”

Strangely, even though she has no easy answer, I leave our conversation energized.  Valerie’s honesty is so refreshing that all I can do is thank her.  Honesty may not solve anyone’s problems, but it feels like a pretty solid place to start.  And I’m mesmerized by the idea of conceiving of schools as ecosystems, living organisms that grow and change, and need a diversity of life within if they’re going to thrive.  What would happen if we threw out all these rubrics and bar charts, and instead created an educational model that reflected the living world?

I will be out of town until the end of October.  I will start posting again in early November.  

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5 thoughts on “Building an Ecosystem”

  1. “Ecosystem” is a beautiful way to describe what a school should be – and a good place from which to start making changes.

  2. I get the sense that people who created evaluation systems didn’t answer the questions you’re trying to answer on this blog FIRST:

    1. What (or who) is a great teacher?
    2. What is the purpose of education?
    ln other words, why are we doing all of this?

    Here’s an interesting statement I came across from a document published by the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church) Yeah I was surprised to find a document on public education: “Most current efforts to reform public education have focused on increasing students’ academic achievement – without a doubt, a central purpose of schooling. But the reasons given for improving achievement often stress individual or private economic benefits (such as preparing youth for good jobs in a global economy), rather than public benefits (such as preparing youth for active citizenship in a healthy democratic society).”

    I would edit the above and further say that “students’ academic achievement” has largely centered around multiple choice high stakes exams like the CST in CA. There is research on how to get higher standardized test scores from students as a teacher (the book “Explicit Direct Instruction” comes to mind). So focus has shifted towards getting (or forcing) teachers and principals to get more adults to behave and do the actions prescribed by this research. For example, pausing, then randomly calling a student, is shown to improve scores. So, design an evaluation system and checklist that says “Did the teacher pause, then randomly call on a student, when asking a question? –> Meets standard, exceeds standard, does not meet standard” And so on and so forth. Put all these teacher actions on a checklist, observe the teacher to hold them accountable, and get them to do these teacher actions as much as possible. This doesn’t sound like the teaching you see in Dead Poets Society, Freedom Writers, or Dangerous Minds, is it now?

  3. Reblogged this on InterACT and commented:
    Teacher Ellie Herman has an interesting post about teacher evaluation, offering a useful blend of both teacher and evaluator perspectives about what we might lose in a prescriptive evaluation system. Here’s a quote from Valerie Braimah, Executive Director of City Charter Schools: “We were trying to create a career path for teachers. We thought it would help them if they knew what was expected. Instead what it ends up boiling down to is a framework that prevents teachers from behaving like professionals and prevents principals from leading.” Read on!

  4. Yes Ben. Agree. Why are we doing all this? I would reframe a bit and ask what or who is school for? But the conversations need to happen.These are the kinds of examinations needed!

  5. I can tell you no high school student in his or her right mind ever said, “Thank you, teacher, for posting today’s objective on the board. I’ll be sure to reflect upon whether we’ve reached the objective at the end of the class.”

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