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Ask three blind people to tell you what an elephant looks like…

July 13, 2010

…and they will give you three completely different answers.

One will say that the elephant is serpentine and flexible, after feeling the animal’s trunk. After feeling one of the animal’s legs, another blind person will say that an elephant is much like a tree trunk, thick, rough to the touch, cylindrical and oriented vertically. The final one, after feeling the animal’s torso will say that it is tall and large.

Why three different answers? Well, the obvious answer is that they’re blind. They each have a different part of the animal, and aren’t able to comprehend its entire shape and thus the reason for the different answers.

The metaphor is quite apropos when one reads a recent post on the National Journal’s Experts in Education blog. It asks the following question:

What do you think should define an effective teacher or principal? Will these definitions lead to systems with better educators?

The sticking point is that of the six experts that responded to the post, only one has K-12 experience mentioned in the bios they posted on the site.

So who are you talking about, Doc? Checker Finn (Fordham Foundation), Diane Ravitch (Diane Ravitch), Tom Vander Ark (Revolution Learning), Sandy Kress (Policy wonk), Ariela Rozeman (The New Teacher Project) and Monty Neill (Fairtest).

Monty Neill is the only one with K-12 experience listed. Sigh. In case you were wondering about my stance on Ravitch: Yes, I do agree with some things Diane Ravitch says; I’m not writing her off. So I’m not exactly writing her off on this one.


I’m a teacher. I, and my brothers and sisters relate to teachers, even former teachers. We feel an automatic kinship with them; perhaps it’s somehow embedded in our genetic code because of all the chalk-dust inhalations we do throughout our career. Kind of like how people who drive Jeeps wave at other people they don’t know who drive Jeeps as they pass. (I’m not kidding, ask someone who owns a Jeep.)

So we listen to teachers (or former ones), because somehow, we think, we hope, that they remember what it was like to be us, to do what we do, to dream the impossible dream….

When you look at the blue ribbon panel listed above, I have to ask you, where are the teachers? With one exception, they’re not there. I think that’s kind of disingenuous. With the exception of Ravitch and Neill, I didn’t really take anything to heart.

So what do I think?

I think this question isn’t about what defines a good principal or teacher. I think this question really should have been “Do you think we have effective educator evaluation systems in place?” That is the question behind the question, isn’t it?

I think the majority of the current teacher and principal evaluation systems are quite flawed, aren’t effective and really cannot prove that a teacher or principal is effective. I think they need to be replaced, and that is something that needs to be done in partnership between labor and management.

If that (atmosphere of collaboration) doesn’t exist, then any efforts to replace said systems will not work. Period. Evaluation systems have to be developed, not imposed. Look no further than the DC teachers’ union if you don’t believe me– they got a five-year contract, but three of the five years were retroactive because neither union nor management trusted each other so it took so damn long to negotiate it.

I could give you examples based on personal experience (unsupported by test scores) about what I think makes an effective teacher or an effective principal. But, that would just be one blind person telling you about a single part of the elephant. After all, I don’t sponsor charter schools, advise US presidents or have experience running foundations with multi-billion dollar endowments.

So, I’ll just leave you with a Frank Zappa quote.

“Talking about music,” said Zappa, “is like dancing about architecture.”

I think that applies when it comes to defining an effective teacher. But yet some will still try to dance about architecture.


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