Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | June 22, 2012

Underwater Vacuuming

Back in Connecticut, mostly on the hottest and muggiest of summer days, I would give passing and unserious thought to the idea of having a pool. Generally, however, living with a pool was something I considered only indifferently. That was before we moved to Arizona. Today, for instance, it is 107 degrees.

Our home in Arizona came with a pool so now I am a pool owner and thus a pool taker-carer-of. Twice a day or more I net out of the pool leaves, myriad insects, the occasional lizard or ground squirrel, and once a tiny, baby rabbit; and I vacuum the pool a couple of times a week.

This morning as I vacuumed, I was thinking about teacher evaluation. Are you wondering what could possibly connect teacher evaluation with pool vacuuming? Well, nothing obvious really. At first the thinking and vacuuming were independent activities. Pool vacuuming is something that has to be done slowly, very slowly, or else you mainly stir up the silt on the pool’s bottom causing the vacuum head to suck nothing but water. My pool is not large. Still, to do a reasonably good job takes a bit more than an hour, so plenty of time to think. When thinking isn’t going well for me, I begin to force it a bit. I guess that’s what happened this morning.

Teacher evaluation had been on my mind since I read about Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant’s instructions to the Los Angeles Unified School District to begin to use students’ academic achievement as part of its teacher evaluation system. In his decision, Judge Chalfant mentioned that the district’s current evaluation system seemed somewhat out of whack in that in 2009-10, 99.3% of Los Angeles teachers received the highest performance ratings while standardized test scores showed that 45% of students performed at grade level in reading and 56% in math. I suppose Judge Chalfant was suspicious. Can’t imagine why.

In graduate school I took two courses where everybody received an A. The first was offered at a teacher college, the second at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The instructor of the first was satisfied if each student produced the required three papers – two short, one long – none of which he graded. There was no exam. The professor at Wesleyan told everyone half way through the semester that because we were all adults and graduate students and that he knew everyone was putting in A effort, everyone would in fact receive an A. It was a poetry writing course. I myself am not a poet, but I am an English teacher and so have taught poetry. I can tell you with assurance that not all poetry is created equal, and not all students put in equal effort. I can also state with certitude that not everyone in any group of students is deserving of an A. Nor are 99.3% of teachers.


During my time in a Connecticut high school, the system for teacher evaluation changed three times. Each iteration was more complicated. required more paperwork, and took more time away from actual teaching. None ever accomplished anything in terms of encouraging good teaching, weeding out bad teaching, or ameliorating mediocre teaching.

Of course, teachers came and went, but not once that I know of was a teacher’s contract not renewed for reason of incompetence. Teachers who left the high school either retired or moved on to another school. One left teaching altogether after her first year. She was a nice and pleasant young woman who, back in teacher college, should have been encouraged to consider almost any other profession. Had she not decided for herself to put her hand to some other labor, I am sure she would still be toiling at the high school, the teacher evaluation system there notwithstanding.


Now, as to vacuuming the pool and evaluating teachers: a good teacher comes to understand that her job requires steady and consistent pressure, and a deliberate and resolute pace – not so fast as to make things cloudy, nor so slow as to invite somnambulation. There are places in my pool where the silt accumulates thickly. Moving the vacuum head through them is instantly satisfying. A clean band appears behind the head. There are other places where I could allow myself to believe that what I’m seeing is a permanent stain rather than a light coating, especially on the curved sides of the pool which require a greater effort to hold the vacuum head tightly to the surface. A good teacher grows to appreciate not only the obvious successes, the discernible flare that registers deep in a student’s eyes when in a burst of comprehension something comes clear. But of greater consequence both for the teacher and student, a good teacher can make out the barely discernible, often minuscule changes that she knows will by year’s end add up to a child markedly more learnėd than the one who sat before her indifferent or even hostile in September.

A standard part of a teacher’s evaluation, no matter what the system, is classroom visits by a supervisor. Commonly, the supervisor sits unobtrusively in the back or at the edges of a classroom, mainly watching the teacher. From there neither the flare or the gradual is perceptible. Discovering the competence of a teacher from that perspective would be exactly like evaluating my pool cleaning efficacy through the window of my dining room. If you want to know if my pool is getting clean, don’t watch me, look at the bottom of the damn pool.

Certainly Judge Chalfant is correct to suggest that standardized test scores are an accurate measure for teacher effectiveness, but they are also determinatively limited. I’m not proposing a definitive solution here, only suggesting that common sense may help. How well did I clean my pool this morning? Look at the bottom. How well does a teacher teach? Maybe this will help. To begin, don’t employ – or if you can’t avoid it, don’t trust – a system to do the evaluating for you. Look at the students, look at their records, ask their parents. Spend a few days in a teacher’s classroom watching the students. Good teaching produces good students.



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