Shortly after I started my teaching career a word I had never learned in college or heard in high school came into vogue: rubric.
I think I first heard the term at one of those professional development meetings that we teachers love attending. At this particular meeting it was our “assessment” skills that were being developed.
The point the developer was making was that we should articulate clearly, preferably in writing, what we as teachers were looking for in our students’ written assessments. This person was really big on the idea of handing out a checklist of requirements to our students before the assessment so they know exactly what would be required of them. This checklist was called a “rubric”.
I had never heard the term before, which is not saying much since I was never the brightest bulb in the batch. Admittedly, the idea that students should know in no uncertain terms what is expected of them is sound teaching advice. As far as professional developments go, this meeting on “rubrics” turned out to be pretty useful for me.
This was around 12 years ago, well before the high tide of education “reform” had broken over the system. Back then it was assumed that us teachers were knowledgeable enough to craft our own rubrics and assess our students accordingly.
I was used to these professional development buzz words fading away just as quickly as they had appeared. After all, we had been trained in “accountable talk”, “backwards planning”, “inquiry-based learning”, “balanced literacy” and a litany of other education fads with no staying power. Yet, the term “rubric” just would not go away. As the years went on it was clear that educational rubrics were here to stay.
Once accepted as conventional pedagogical wisdom, however, it is rare for a particular practice or idea to remain static. Other people come along and add to the idea, reinterpret it and apply it in different ways. So it happened with the simple idea of a rubric. Over the years it has taken on a life of its own.
Somewhere along the way we reached a point where the concept of the rubric went from a simple checklist of expectations to an objective measure of quality. The rise of standardized testing certainly had something to do with this. Indeed, the word “standardized” implies something objective, cold, logical and equally applicable to all students at all times. Teachers who grade these tests have to be trained in how to apply a supposedly objective measure of what quality student work looks like and judge each individual piece of work by that standard.
But the rubric really started running amok when it was applied to teachers. Thanks to the so-called “accountability” movement, it was assumed that there was an objective standard by which all teachers could be measured.
Here in NYC, some defenders of our union have said that the new evaluation system will be good for teachers because it will be “objective”. Principals will no longer give “Us” or “Ss” as they see fit, using some arbitrary standard of whether or not they like your smile and the way you dress. Instead, principals will have to follow the “Danielson” rubric. The assumption, if not the faith, on the part of Danielson’s defenders is that it cannot be gamed by principals.
Unfortunately, it is my view that Danielson and any other teacher rubric can certainly be gamed. Here are some of the standards by which Danielson measures teachers: Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy, Establishing a Culture for Learning, Reflecting on Teaching and Engaging Students in Learning. To say that these things are objective is to suggest that they look the same to all principals at all times. I mean, come on, we all “know” when students are engaged in learning when we see it, right?
My response is: come on, we all “know” what an “S” or a “U” teacher looks like, right?
There is a danger in calling Danielson, or any other teacher rubric, “objective”. Principals are human beings who can and will interpret every single point in this rubric in their own way. Their judgement will be a subjective one, yet the fact that it is neatly checked off on a list gives it an air of objectivity. When I hear defenders of our current union leadership say that Danielson is “objective”, I cringe. It is no more objective than the current U/S system that can easily be wielded to destroy a teacher’s career. The only difference is that Danielson affords the administrator the privilege of hiding behind objectivity.
No matter how many reformers, educrats and educationists try to dress the act of teaching up in the language of science, it will always remain an art form. Attempting to pound an art into the flat, logical arrows of science will serve no other purpose than to contort the teaching profession itself. Teachers will be forced to contort their styles, their methods and what they know to be good teaching in a mad dash to be rated “effective” by this “objective” rubric.
One of the reasons why this movement we call “education reform” is doomed to fail is because it fights against the true nature of what teaching is. It is like taking a coiled spring and trying to stretch it into a straight pipe cleaner. Sure, as long as your hands are able to grasp the ends and stretch it out, the spring will be straight. But once you let it go, it will snap back into place.
And so it is with teaching. As long as the Billionaire Boys’ Club calls the shots in our education system, they can stretch the teaching profession into an unnatural state. But there will be a time when, either out of satisfaction or frustration, they will lose interest in the education cause. Either they will be satisfied that they have sufficiently reformed our schools or they will throw up their hands at the intractability of doing so.
When they finally let go, the teaching profession will be allowed to snap back into its original form. Our only hope can be that they haven’t held it long enough to do permanent damage to its shape.