Teachers Are Not Interchangeable Parts: The Widget Effect


The Widget Effect, a new report on systemic barriers to identifying and supporting effective teachers from the New Teacher Project (2009), asks:

“If teachers are so important, why do we treat them like widgets? Effective teachers are the key to student success. Yet our school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives.” (p.1, Executive Summary.)  Download (pdf) Executive Summary.

This report is generating buzz and capturing the attention of the policy set like National Staff Development Council (NSDC) Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh and NSDC Federal Policy Advisor Rene Islas as they work with policymakers to change the definition of professional development in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, as reported in EdWeek WebWatch.

In addition, the report adds momentum to the drive to develop a richer context to school reform conversations focused narrowly on dismissing ineffective teachers. As one National Journal Online education blog discusses:

“Those who see the firing of the least effective teachers and the rewarding of the most effective as the primary goal of value-added driven evaluation are missing the bigger picture. They ignore the vast majority of good-to-very good teachers who can achieve even greater success if given access to high-quality induction and professional development, supported by data and evidence of student learning.” (National Journal Online, October 19, 2009)

Download (pdf) the full report and recommendations from the New Teacher Project.

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7 Responses to “Teachers Are Not Interchangeable Parts: The Widget Effect”

  1. Kelly Says:

    Love the metaphor of the widget. Hopefully this will help leaders see that investment in high quality teaching is the only way to continuous improvement and lasting student achievement for all students. Thanks for the resources.

  2. Ruth S. Says:

    Kelly, glad to see your comment–it took me to your wonderful blog–looking so rich and interesting now two years (?!?) after you told us you were a “blog novice”–I especially liked the set of writings linked to student voice, agency, involvement in school improvement. And lo and behold, it took me to the March Ed Leadership on the theme of Reading to Learn!

  3. Ruth S. Says:

    Important cautions re the potentially destructive aspects of the “Value added teacher assessment system” promoted in New Teacher Center’s influential “Widget Effect” document and current policy groundswell.

    “The October 5, 2009 National Academy of Sciences Board on Testing and Assessment letter on the “Race to the Top” draft guidelines …… makes clear that the preponderance of evidence shows that current tests are not adequate to the job of seriously evaluating either students or teachers, and that “value added” or “growth” measures are not ready for prime time use. This is not a matter of waiting for perfection…but a warning not to cause further damage to education by intensifying the misuse of tests built into NCLB.”

    From Monty Neill of FairTest blogging among many other interesting contributors on NationalJournal ed blog Gina mentions in this post.

  4. larry WHite Says:

    I agree with the general concepts of the Widget Effect. As a whole, the strength of the teachers unions has also been its greatest drawback. Teacher are truly not interchangeable parts and the administrations of most districts are complicit in doing considerable damage by not effectively supervising, remediating, and replacing ineffective and failing teachers. However, after administration missed the boat by failing to address the problem during the probationary period, the professional associations have blocked attempts to reform the process during tenure. Many of the biggest challenges are those teachers who, with support, remained in the profession at minimal level. As tenured individuals, they remain isolated from an effective remediation and improvement process, especially at the high school level.. In today’s political, economic, and social climate, the trend seems to be that the teachers had better work to incorporate a remediation system with the administrations or the public and politicians will do it themselves. Teachers need to establish some sort of peer observation and reflection procedures to help us improve ourselves and agree to incorporate supplemental components into evaluation and retention systems rather than just tenure and seniority. Assessment results are one component, but additional ones including more frequent admin observation, grades, student feedback, peer mentoring with some responsibilities for evaluation, etc. There are too many teachers who work exceptionally hard under unbelievably challenging conditions to have the 10-20 percent of ineffective teachers drag us and the teaching profession down with them.

    • Gina Hale Says:

      Larry, thanks for visiting and commenting. The Widget Effect raises some important issues for us all to consider, including how to find ways to be responsible for each member of our professional community. I think one question that remains for me is: how do we change the sink or swim culture of teaching so that all of us have access to high quality professional development and learning through out our careers? BTSA is great, but as you say, a culture of isolation pervades. It is not just beginning teachers who need ongoing coaching, mentoring and opportunities to stretch and grow as the demands of the profession and the times change.


    • Ruth S. Says:

      Hi Larry,
      Good points. I think the unions have been about 20 years too late on this…with some notable exceptions–Toledo I believe has had a very good peer evaluation and assistance program..though I recently heard it had degraded over time. The other promising practice I heard about for swimming against the tide of Admin only eval of T. effectiveness but having good systems in place for ensuring strong teachers for kids–something Richard Elmore has developed that I think they call “Clinical Rounds”–Cinncinati schools are using it, among others. Cross-role groups visit classrooms and do observations of instruction to build up their own definitions of effective teaching.

  5. Larry W Says:

    I concur with both of you. I have served as a BTSA mentor for several years and was fortunate to have the opportunity of serving on loan for two years as a visiting educator with our county’s teacher development program. Also, I have recommended a program, which I believe will be implemented next year at our site, for cross-curriculum teams, with at least one or two 6 teacher teams to start. They will conduct observations or each other on their prep periods, meet to reflect on effective practices and propose improvement for the team and its members, which will then be applied during the next observation cycle. However, these will be highly selective groups who will be more attune to accept constructive suggestions, work with an open mind, escape the isolation, etc. In other words, the teachers who would have probably sought out improvements themselves. My concern is the extensive culture of fear of change, appropriate methods of professional development, and honest tools for moving the intransigent teachers to a new direction, either making the classroom better for students or assisting them in finding other avenues for their careers.

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