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June 3rd, 2009

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 8 – June 3rd, 2009

In general the process of evaluation of teachers’ performance has been completely unsatisfactory; it is no wonder many teachers object to performance pay! There are parallels with many other organisations. Are museums irrelevant? Sea levels have risen! Two books on science and a wonderful review of books on Darwin and evolution by Richard Lewontin who asks, “What if Charles’ nose had been larger?”


Teacher evaluation and ‘loose coupling’: Elizabeth Kleinhenz & Lawrence Ingvarson of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Australia (Research Papers in Education Vol. 19, No. 1, March 2004) investigated the processes for teacher assessment in “Teacher Accountability in Australia: current policies and practices and their relation to improvement of teaching and learning”. It seems that like most of the research on schooling and teaching, little notice has been taken of it. There are parallels with what happens in performance assessment in most organisations.

Kleinhenz and Ingvarson begin with the following statement. “If teaching well is something most teachers can learn to do over time, not just a bundle of personality traits, insightful formative assessment and coaching systems are vital. If experienced and effective teachers are to be kept close to the classroom and provide leadership to other teachers, professionally credible summative assessments systems will be needed that can provide them with the recognition they deserve for evidence of high levels of professional development.”

They observe, “In most cases, assessment is related to promotion to position of additional responsibility where the tasks have little to do with teaching. “There are wide gaps between managerially designed and implemented procedures and the realities of what teachers actually know and do-the “technical core’ of teaching. … In most Australian schools and systems, we suspect, teachers’ real work remains well and truly buffered from the kind of professional scrutiny that could contribute to its improvement and provide the public with genuine guarantees of its effectiveness and quality.”

While in some cases applicants for promotion can submit details of their work, in many cases they are simply asked to address criteria that relate to the position. It is not that which is of concern but that promotion – higher pay – is only possible by taking responsibility for administrative and organisational tasks such as dealing with complaints, timetabling, student grouping and events. Further, the panel reviewing the applications spend little time on the process despite the consequences of appointment. Principals generally manage the process but may delegate it. In particular, genuine leadership which is essential to successful school is absent. Think of many other organisations employing large numbers of technical professional people. (Think also of successful orchestra conductors!)

The management expert Karl Weick (“Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems”, Administrative Science Quarterly, 21, 1976) developed ‘loose coupling theory’ to describe this gap between the technical core, rewards and ‘actors’.

Some education systems including New South Wales and some parts of the American (US) system have developed better arrangements which in particular provide for promotion based on technical competence and involve careful review of performance through peer review.

Some economists, politicians and parents are fond of advocating paying teachers on the basis of their performance. If the evaluation process is no good what would be gained by such a system. And what about formative evaluation?

Are museums irrelevant?: Bob Janes has recently had published a book with this title; he has summarised his views at the Palazzo Strossi Foundation site. I have commented on issues relevant to this at an earlier post on my site – and an associated essay and more recently and at “Managerialism buried (I wish)” My comments on this book and the responses are on Museum 3.0 and also at the Palazzo Strossi Foundation site. Etc etc


Sea Level Rise! In “Refugees Join List of Climate-Change Issues” (New York Times May 28, 2009) Neil MacFarquar reports that Huene, an island in the Carteret chain in the South Pacfic, has been bisected by the sea. “With their boundless vistas of turquoise water framed by swaying coconut palms, the Carteret Islands northeast of the Papua New Guinea mainland might seem the idyllic spot to be a castaway.But sea levels have risen so much that during the annual king tide season, November to March, the roiling ocean blocks the view from one island to the next, and residents stash their possessions in fishing nets strung between the palm trees.”


Wonderful books on science! On the Science Show on ABC Radio National on 30 May Marcus Chown discussed some of the ideas explored in his latest book, “Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You” and Michael Brooks discussed some of the ideas in his latest book, “Thirteen Things that Don’t Make Sense”: the anomalies in science, such as dark matter, dark energy and varrying physical constants, are in a way, the only things that matter.

Richard C. Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard University and author of “The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change” and “Biology as Ideology” and other books reviews, in the New York Review of Books for May 28, a number of books about Charles Darwin – there are a huge number published this year, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th of the publication of “The Origin of Species”.

Lewontin begins, “When I was a student I was enjoined to reject the “Cleopatra’s Nose” theory of history, so called after Pascal’s remark in the Pensées : “Cleopatra’s nose: if it had been shorter, everything in the world would have changed.”[1] The intent was not to dismiss biography as a way into the structuring of a historical narrative, but to reject the idea that the properties, ideas, or actions of some particular person were the necessary conditions for the unfolding of events in the world. If Josef Djugashvili had never been born, someone else could have been Stalin.”

Lewontin concludes, “It seems that Cleopatra’s is not the only nose in question. In his brief Autobiography Darwin writes of his successful visit to Captain FitzRoy to arrange for his trip on the Beagle:

“Afterwards, on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge of a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted that anyone with my nose should possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.

“But what if it had been bigger?”

Lewontin’s article, as always, is terrific and full of very interesting ideas.

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