REACH (and Common Core?) absurdities even reaching the pages of Education Week

The absurdities of REACH (and its brethren across the USA) and Common Core are even beginning to reach (pun intended) the propaganda pages of Education Week, which for two decades has been the official voice of corporate school reform propaganda-as-news. Loyal to their funders, the Ed Week reporters and pundits generally have adapted to each official Party Line pirouette (remember "Small Schools"?) in the plan for corporations to control public education, eliminate all but company unions, and privatize as much as possible.

CPS "Chief Instruction Officer" Jennifer Cheatham at the Board of Education's January 25, 2012 meeting. Like most of the top executives at CPS, Cheatham, one of those pushing REACH, has no classroom or teaching experience in Chicago's public schools, but she has mastered Power Point's finer points and displayed her prowess before the Board. Her career as an educational consultant in California and as an educational administrator in Chicago have been based on a facility to turn out vapid Power Points with little or no relationship to classroom realities or children's learning in real schools. Defending the mandates for REACH with pre-K and the little ones is just one of the miracles that can be done with Power Point and power when reality and policy diverge, as they have today in Chicago. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.But is it possible that corporate reform has finally reached the outer limits of its absurdities, to the point where even the most loyal Ed Week pundits and reporters can see how silly this has gotten. Consider the current critique of REACH and its relatives as public schools across the USA descend further into the absurdity of "performance based" evaluations of teachers. In Illinois, despite the sensible critiques of the leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union and the union's researchers, REACH is being deployed into every real public school in Chicago. (As usual, "accountability" is not for the fake public schools, the charters).

The essay below states is clearly enough (and it can be applied immediately to the enormous waste of teacher and principal time and energy currently involved in REACH): "It is high time that the reform community grows up and learns that schools won't improve until we put the brakes on untested, overblown initiatives. These prevent us from focusing on the most effective practices long enough for them to take hold..."

Here is the latest:

Why Complex Teacher Evaluations Don't Work, By Mike Schmoker

Here they come: those complex, bloated, evaluation templates that are now being dumped on teachers and administrators. These are supposed to make schools perform better.

Once again, we are rushing into a premature, ill-conceived innovation—without any solid evidence that it promotes better teaching. These jargon-laced, confusing documents are to be used to evaluate or even to compensate teachers on the basis of multiple, full-period, pre-announced classroom observations. Each observation is to be preceded and followed by meetings between teachers and administrators that will require enormous amounts of time, paperwork, and preparation. Like so many past reforms, this one will be launched nationally, like a bad movie, without being piloted and refined first. (Imagine if we did this with prescription drugs.) It will consume a disproportionate share of precious training time and promote misguided practices that could endure for the next decade. Rather than improve schools, it will only crowd out and postpone our highest, most urgent curricular and instructional priorities.

Don't misunderstand me: Teacher observation and evaluation are among the strongest components of effective school-improvement efforts. If you visit classrooms across the nation (as many of us do), you know that most teaching is at odds with some of the most obvious elements of sound practice. But these frameworks aren't the solution. They lack clarity and focus, and their use should be postponed on the basis of their sheer bulk (most are dozens of pages long) and their murky, agenda-driven language.

In February, The New York Times reported that one of these frameworks contains an astonishing 116 "subcategories" by which educators' lessons are to be assessed. I can only imagine teachers, whose morale is already at a record low, encountering these unwieldy instruments and the anxiety they will provoke.

Done right, teacher evaluation could ensure precisely the kind of systematic action that would guarantee immediate improvement, i.e., by clarifying a minimal set of the most essential, widely known criteria for effective curriculum, such as rich content taught largely thought literacy activities and sound instruction.

Once clarified, evaluation would then focus on only one or two elements at a time, with multiple opportunities for teachers to practice and receive feedback from their evaluators. Teachers' progress and performance on these criteria would be the basis for evaluation.

Jim Collins, the business consultant and author of Good to Great, and the organizational-improvement expert Marcus Buckingham discovered that the performance and morale of both employees and managers skyrockets when managers:

• Severely reduce the number of criteria by which they judge an employee's performance; and

• Have "crystal clarity" for those very few criteria, abandoning any language that could confuse a practitioner.

Teachers need assurances that we will never, ever require them to pore through dozens of bewildering boxes and bullets about how they should perform. Policymakers have yet to learn that less is more with respect to strategic planning, our (still-gargantuan) standards documents, or our ever-expanding and exotic menus of programs and professional-development offerings. And now teacher-evaluation frameworks.

One popular multipage framework requires that lessons be taught with "simultaneous multisensory representations" during the lesson and "facilitation . . . that results in students' application of interdisciplinary knowledge through the lens of local and global issues." Another framework—in similarly mangled language—requires that lessons "reflect understanding of prerequisite relationships among topics and concepts and a link to necessary cognitive structures." I guarantee that is not the kind of advice average teachers need to improve their lessons. Moreover, most of these frameworks insist—against all research and evidence to the contrary—that teachers must provide lessons that include special materials for each individual student or subgroup, all while addressing dozens of other criteria.

We'll never improve instruction this way. Here's the alternative.

First, we should do everything in our power to ensure that there is a clear, coherent curriculum in place before we attach high stakes to any evaluation. The absence of such a curriculum explains a great portion of the aimless, ineffective lessons we see in our schools. In addition, this curriculum must include generous amounts of what is now—finally—being emphasized in the "three shifts" that capture the essence of the English/language arts common core, i.e., daily opportunities to read, discuss, and write. These should all be grounded in evidence found in high-quality, content-rich texts across the disciplines. This simple, timeless emphasis is the key to success on tests, in college, and in careers. It is nowhere to be found, however, in our most popular evaluation templates.

Without such a curriculum, instruction inevitably devolves into the kinds of inane worksheets, group activities, and misguided practices that now predominate in our schools.

Once such a curriculum is in place, we should evaluate teachers on whether they are actually implementing and improving their curriculum in teams, with their same-course colleagues.

"Done right, teacher evaluation could ensure precisely the kind of systematic action that would guarantee immediate improvement."

Finally, we should observe and evaluate teachers on the basis of (mostly) short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits, using the same, few, age-old criteria. The noted researcher Robert Marzano, among others, exhorts us to regard these as "routine components" of any and every effective lesson:

• Attention and engagement (i.e., steps are taken to ensure that all students are attentive and on task throughout the lesson);

• A clear, well-defined purpose and objective to the lesson; followed by ...

• Multiple short segments of instruction; immediately followed by ...

• Opportunities for students to process or practice what was just taught, while the teacher checks and monitors to see how well the class has learned; followed by ...

• Adjustments to the lesson and the pace of the lesson to ensure that all students, or as close to that as possible, can succeed on each phase of instruction, until they can achieve the objective of that day's lesson or group project.

These elements, which guarantee improvement, can actually be found in some of the evaluation frameworks. But they are not written clearly or prominently enough to be seen as indispensable priorities. Instead, they are obscured by the dozens of other specious, confusing evaluation criteria that surround them. To reiterate: The observations that are the basis of an evaluation must occur largely unannounced. We can't afford to repeat the feckless protocols refuted decades ago—those built around pre-announced visits, followed by lengthy pre- and post-conferences.

Until this changes, as the author and teacher-evaluation expert Kim Marshall and others have made so clear, teacher evaluation will continue to be nothing more than what teachers and administrators have aptly called a dog-and-pony show, with one difference: It will be even more confusing and time-consuming.

It is high time that the reform community grows up and learns that schools won't improve until we put the brakes on untested, overblown initiatives. These prevent us from focusing on the most effective practices long enough for them to take hold.

Clear, minimalist, priority-driven teacher evaluation could play a central role in ensuring that such practices become the norm. If they do, we will beyond any doubt hasten the improvement of schools in virtually any setting.

[Mike Schmoker is an author, speaker, and consultant, who lives in Tempe, Ariz. His most recent book is FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (ASCD, 2011). He can be reached at]


September 2, 2012 at 7:38 AM

By: Heidi Nardini


Another aspect to REACH is that no teacher, whose test scores are attached to her evaluation, will want to accept any student teacher into her classroom for fear of a downgraded rating. How are future educators supposed to get the experience and training needed from an experienced teacher when such roadblocks are in place?

September 2, 2012 at 12:48 PM

By: Margaret Wilson

Ratings system will be the worst in history

I had a lot of complaints about the previous rating system because it was extremely subjective and the Union kept saying that you couldn't grieve on anything the Principal wrote--you could only grieve if he/she didn't follow the timeline. This new one is the worst!! Tying teachers' ratings to test scores is going to cause more teachers to try and falsify test results. The fact is that some students are not prepared to move onto the next level and others are just not good test takers. I read the new evaluation booklet and I doubt principals are going to be able to explain it in the mandatory half hour meeting each year (if they understand it themselves).

September 2, 2012 at 4:37 PM

By: Carl Lewis

Jennifer Cheatem

When we went to the Common Core meeting for CPS Jennifer Cheatem had a "class" on Reach. She had us all rate a teacher on a video. She admitted she waan't an expert on REACH and she was still learning. In fact her score was different than the lady from CPS. They both had different ratings? Yet they are supposedly the cream of the crop? Honestly this system is a joke!

September 2, 2012 at 4:50 PM

By: Jonathan Cohler


The thing about Reach, I believe, is that it's not about actually evaluating teachers. The complexity of REACH is intentional. It is designed to create an impossible-to-reach cut score and make it easier to simply let teachers go by calling them sub-standard.

September 2, 2012 at 7:24 PM

By: Lee Alexander

NBCT against REACH

After sitting through two separate PD's on this monster everyone I spoke with hates it. I am a good teacher, dedicated and creative special education teacher. So because I choose to work in an impoverished neighborhood with challenged students I am a poor instructor? Because I teach my students relevant skills and not train them in test taking I should be replaced by a TFA who will quit? Ask ME to prove my students make gains and I can, using their efforts and products. NWEA does not care about kids, REACH torments students, and neither is a teaching tool.

September 3, 2012 at 6:36 AM

By: Kati Gilson NBCT

REACH for pre-school — a stupid and inhuman way to treat three-year-olds

The first few weeks of preschool are full of seperation anxiety, fear of the unknown, and learning new routines and expectations. That is usually the first month of curriculum. Now, we have to test each child using REACH. Hello little child that just turned 3 in August. Welcome to preschool. Let's take a test. Plus, we already do the ESI-R, a developmental screenting test, on all new children. So we're looking at about 40-50 minutes of testing per child (I have 40). That's 2000 hours of testing in September. There aren't enough hours in the day to test. I guess I start teaaching in October? And then we repeat this in May when we also have to do the Kindergarte Readiness Test. Another time intensive test. So, we just lost two whole months of teaching time to standardized testing. Makes absolutely no sense.

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