Did you think Lake Wobegon was supposed to be in Minnesota? Not so, at least for our public school teachers. For them, Lake Wobegon is located right here in Delaware.
If you don’t know about the mythical Lake Wobegon, its creator (Garrison Keillor) says it’s a place where all the children are above average. To be fair, according to The News Journal, not all of Delaware’s public school teachers are above average; but almost half are! The rest are average, except for the one percent who “need improvement.”
The News Journal puts forth that unnamed “state leaders” believe the teacher performance appraisal system is “improving.” When you’ve got a system that spectacularly fails to identify poorly performing teachers, anything which would be a tiny bit better could be called an “improvement.”
Do teachers have tough jobs? Yes, they do. But is nearly every teacher in the Delaware public school system a good fit for his/her job? Common sense says no. As with any enterprise, there are exceptional employees, plus good steady ones, and others who aren’t cut out for the job.
So why are only one percent of our state teachers deemed to “need improvement?”
Having once been a toiler in a bureaucracy, my conclusion is the evaluators are risk-averse.
Being risk-averse is a natural condition in a bureaucracy; taking a risk (e.g., trying to fire a teacher) means filling out lots of forms, keeping a meticulous record, enduring endless meetings with the teachers union, and, ultimately, being prepared for a lawsuit by the underperforming teacher. And there’s a good chance the teacher will prevail in the end. Not exactly the kind of climate that encourages rigorous performance evaluations.
At this point, perhaps you’re expecting me to say we need a better system “for the children.” Indeed we do, but we also need it for the teachers.
Right now, Delaware has teachers that could do a better job, if only they and their problems could be identified – with resources devoted to improving their performance.
Likewise, Delaware has teachers who don’t belong in the classroom – and for whom more training or mentoring is not a solution. I cannot imagine how this group of teachers could be happy people. And it would take a heroic effort not to bring that unhappiness into the classroom.
If we want real improvement in how Delaware evaluates its teachers, we should look at those states that are doing a better job than Delaware, and take our cues from them.
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (which annually grades states for improvements) the state with the highest score in 2013 was Florida (B+). Three states received “B” grades, ten had “B-” grades, and Delaware was one of four states with a “C+” grade (up from a “D” grade in 2009).
Delaware can do better, but only if the people in Dover shed their risk averse ways and implement a useful evaluation system. Continuing to tread water in Lake Wobegon is not the answer – not for our teachers or their students.