There are a lot of cute references to No Child Left Behind as some sort of Lake Wobegon law, because of its provision that all children must be “proficient” by 2014. The reference is to Garrison Keillor’s famous book by the same name, where all the children from the town of Lake Wobegon are above average. Of course, “average” does not mean the same thing as “proficient,” so it’s not really a fair comparison, unless the speaker intends to express that all kids being “proficient” is just as impossible as all kids being “above average.” Regardless, this is a pretty common misconception and one of the biggest (false) critiques of NCLB.
We’re about to get some good evidence of a real Lake Wobegon effect in education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has asked states to provide, as part of their teacher quality assurances due for stimulus funds, the number and percentage of teachers scoring at each performance level on local evaluations. (Read a write-up of the story at Education Week here.)
These numbers will surprise the general public and embarrass teachers and districts. The new Secretary of Ed. knows a thing or two about this. His administration commissioned the New Teacher Project to analyze its personnel policies, and one of the results was the chart at left. It shows the results of 36,000 teacher evaluations from 2003 to 2006 in Chicago. Over a four year period, 93 percent of all evaluations resulted in a rating of either “superior” or “excellent,” while only .3 percent were deemed “unsatisfactory.” In a district with its share of failing schools, less than one in twenty gave an unsatisfactory rating to any teacher in four years. Catherine Cullen thinks the data will be taken in stride, but I doubt such Wobegonian evaluation systems will resonate with the average taxpayer, especially as unemployment hits 25-year highs.
Evaluation systems, ideally, would not be just some abstract measure on which everyone scores well. They should be used for real asssessment and improvement, but they’re often just drive-by formailities. Yet, ones that are done well can help document a case for dismissing an ineffective or negligent teacher, while ones that are done poorly serve as a major impediment. If a principal makes a mistake on a teacher’s evaluation, that too can hamper a district’s ability to rid itself of poor teachers.
And, to be honest, there are poor teachers. Evaluation systems that fail to recognize that fact deserve sunlight and scorn.