Do schools treat teachers like “widgets?”

The New Teacher Project thinks so. The teacher quality research and advocacy group based in Brooklyn, NY, criticizes the way in which teachers are evaluated in a new report titled “The Widget Effect.”

Researchers analyzed the evaluations of teachers in about a dozen districts, from Chicago, Ill., to Little Rock, Ark. They concluded, among other things, that rookie teachers receive little support, that ineffective teachers with tenure are rarely dismissed for poor performance, and that “… on paper, almost every teacher is a great teacher…”

You can find the report here.

Here’s an excerpt:

The failure of evaluation systems to provide accurate and credible information about individual
teachers’ instructional performance sustains and reinforces a phenomenon that we have come to call the Widget Effect. The Widget Effect describes the tendency of school districts to assume classroom effectiveness is the same from teacher to teacher. This decades-old fallacy fosters an environment in which teachers cease to be understood as individual professionals, but rather as interchangeable parts. In its denial of individual strengths and weaknesses, it is deeply disrespectful to teachers; in its indifference to instructional effectiveness, it gambles with the lives of students.

Researchers said teachers often expect that they will be rated as top performers; more than 94 percent receive one of the top two ratings. They also found that evaluations are infrequent and short, and that about 3 of every 4 reviews lacked specific feedback about ways to improve or support they would receive. 

Do you agree that teachers are treated like interchangeable parts? Do you think schools and districts would benefit from a more rigorous evaluation system that — as researchers suggest — separates the great from the good from the fair from the poor? If so, how should that information be used? Should it help determine a teacher’s placement or compensation?

photo from RBerteig’s photostream at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • aly

    the widget effect most definitely exists. it isn’t even just administration. it is society as a whole that seems to think we can just plug people in and as long as they completed a credential program, a teacher’s a teacher. when i went through my program i was frustrated with the people that were admitted because you could tell that quite a few had no business in a classroom; they weren’t interested in pedagogical tools or learning about a variety of instructional methods. i don’t know what drove them into the profession other than having a degree they weren’t sure what else to do with (history and math, for instance).

    there was a discussion on this blog not too long ago where we debated what is missing from teacher evaluations that would make them more effective and meaningful. i believe we need our administrators to be able to interact with us more and observe us more than just 2-3 times annually and we should use two types of evaluations: formative and summative.

    a formative evaluation would happen no less than monthly where the administrator comes in to observe the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses in order to set up a growth plan. all formative evals would center on the goals for that teacher and their growth in those areas. these would be more open exchanges of information and opportunities for teachers to really learn and perfect their craft. less scary, less threatening; more inviting.

    a summative evaluation would be somewhat similar to the biannual review we get now in OUSD, but with more time dedicated to understanding it. these would be the ones where principals can say “okay, you’ve been working on this for while and you are either succeeding or failing,” and then a teacher’s future can come from there.

    if teachers are not willing to make annual efforts to improve their craft, they ought not be in the classroom. i have watched way too many young, promising teachers go without jobs because tenured, hangers-on are waiting for retirement.

    the debate that took place previously is still important, though; it centered on who the administrator is, what their attitude is when they are evaluating, and how often they are present outside of evaluations. i attempt to remedy for the last issue by having the consistent formative evals that place the administrator and teacher on the same team. if you do not trust your administrator, or they only come around to evaluate you, and therefore can’t really know what is happening in your classroom, then increased presence isn’t necessarily the answer.

    finally, a more rigorous evaluation system can lead to improvements only if the administrators are also subject to it; letting an incompetent or unprofessional leader evaluate people in a MORE intense way can only lead to greater problems. in OUSD this means NEXOs have to be involved at their sites and present consistently, observing their principals just as the principals observe teachers. once or twice a year just doesn’t cut it, no matter who is being reviewed.

  • Paul

    After reading the report, it seems to me that much of the information presented isn’t particularly new. I feel that the much of the data gathered by TNTP has been around is some form or another in previous studies, etc.

    Obviously union leaders need to be proactive in assisting district officials in helping create better teacher evaluation systems. Some unions have realized this better than others. And likewise, some urban central offices have done a better job in collaborating with stakeholders than others.

    However, I think the bigger picture revolves around the question of we evaluate students (math & reading test scores, mostly via multiple choice). Most people in education agree that this isn’t the best way to evaluate but it’s done anyways because more comprehensive methods are seen as “cost-prohibitive.”

    So yes, we can evaluate teachers more “effectively” but if this done while students themselves continue being evaluated solely on math and reading scores then it’s really just about adults making themselves feel good.

  • cranky teacher

    I have said this many times on here before but will say it again for those who have never worked in a typical American public school: Meaningful evaluations are basically IMPOSSIBLE in the current status quo simply because of organizational structure and manpower limitations.

    To wit:

    A typical high school has 2000 students, 150 teachers and para-educators, 35 additional staff and four administrators. Turnover is usually about 10-20 percent EACH YEAR.

    Now, those 4 administrators are supposed to evaluate the other 185 adults on campus. Of course, they have some other duties, haha.

    This is why teachers often go years without evaluations — and then are shocked to find an evaluation means somebody coming into their room twice for 20 minutes and then making sweeping generalizations about their teaching based on what was written on the board.

    What other industries/institutions/companies do is they have something called middle management. A reviled concept, I know, but at least it allows for meaningful evaluation of your 5-15 reporting employees. Plus, these managers usually spend significant time every day in direct contact with their underlings.

    In schools we have something called department chairs. They are given a little extra cash — the same regardless of department size — to pass info up and down the food chain and lead meetings. They have ZERO role in evaluation (except informally, I suppose. Often it is the LOW person on the totem pole who is the department chair, since it is such a thankless task. Department chairs also do not observe their peers in most schools.

    OK, with that does of reality, you may continue to write about all the amazing forms of evaluation unions and management should collude to invent…and then ignore in the daily hurly burly.

  • cranky teacher

    Aly wrote: “I have watched way too many young, promising teachers go without jobs because tenured, hangers-on are waiting for retirement.”

    Are you kidding? There are ALWAYS open jobs in Oakland middle schools. Richmond opened with over a hundred vacancies two years ago. What you really mean is that at “good” schools hangers-on are “waiting for retirement.” Shocking, huh?

    Perhaps they should be given some dried salmon and pushed out onto a floating iceberg?

  • Nextset

    I think Cranky is right.

    Without the creation and empowerment of middle management there will be no meanful evaluation of classroom teachers.

    Every other industry and organization uses middle management this way, for a reason. When schools were smaller the principal was middle management.

  • aly

    cranky: a clarification- it depends on the subject matter and credentials. i am a high school, single subject credentialed teacher and was speaking from that point of view. sorry for not being more clear, because there ARE levels with many openings that are always waiting to be filled. unfortunately, the humanities (english/literature/social studies) departments of MANY high schools- “good” and “bad”- are full of dead weight.

    and it was your comments i was thinking of when i wrote about a discussion on this topic that had occurred earlier. it is entirely true that until we address the ratio of administrator to teacher or create additional administrative roles to handle the tasks that admin currently deals with (discipline, activities, budget, academic planning), no matter what plan we come up with, it will be impossible to implement effectively.

    so the big question is: can we free up administrators from the daily menial tasks they are engaged in to allow them in our classrooms WITHOUT it costing more money (hiring additional admin)? i know my principal is forced to spend a lot of time satisfying requirements for district initiatives like focus on results, days out for principal meetings, and completing other tasks that aren’t effective for our school. if she could be free of a lot of paperwork, she could definitely be more present in our classrooms and understand us better as teachers.

    i particularly appreciate the way you clearly sum up the dilemma we face of the current evaluative system: 20 minutes for a whole a year is pitiful, and the last time you discussed this topic it made me understand a whole lot better the reason so many teachers resent the presence of administrators in their classrooms. until you pointed this out, i naively thought that if we had nothing to hide, we wouldn’t mind. i had never really worried about people coming in my room because i was used to being evaluated- formally and informally- pretty consistently and always enjoyed the process. if someone never took the time to observe me, compliment what i do well and help me grow where i am weak, i wouldn’t want them deciding my value as a teacher, either.

    thank you for being so clear and patient when you express your views. i learn a lot from your posts :-) (that one’s for john)

  • local teacher

    Aly –

    I think the solution to the problem is simple: hire one additional administrator whose job is solely focused on school operations – budget, office management, custodial services, food services, discipline, and supervision (yard duty, lunch duty, hall duty, etc.). The training and credentialing for this position would be entirely based on running a school’s operations – probably something more similar to an MBA or executive type management program.

    Most principals are former teachers who have never been formally trained in managing multi-million dollar budgets, operations, facilities, etc. As former teachers, they do bring an instructional expertise and would be appropriately suited for an instructional leadership and evaluative role.

    In my experience, I’ve worked with principals that are usually good at instruction OR operations, but it is rare to find someone who can truly manage all of the components of a school.

  • Sara

    I have a single-subject credential in social studies and can’t find a job. I am competing with Teach for America, Oakland Teacher Corps, Project Pipeline and Oakland Teaching Fellows. How can I compete with that? I am told schools get money for hiring these kids – and kids they are, with no experience teaching and no idea of what they are getting into. That tells me Oakland cares more about their bottom line than in hiring competent, credentialed teachers. I see a lot of really incompetent, old teachers who need to leave but for some reason, because they have been teaching a long time, they are considered to be good teachers – an amazing critera for evaluation. The teacher I student taught under rarely left her chair and had no idea what was going on in her classroom. She should have left years earlier and made way for someone who could teach.

  • ProStudent

    So OUSD pays TNTP $700,000 a year to come up with that??? New teachers need support. Veteran teachers need support. Administrators need support. Students need support! I’m a little disappointed.

  • ProStudent


    I just wanted to clarify that you’re not competing with Project Pipeline for jobs . . . they don’t recruit. They are a teaching credential program like Holy Names, SFSU, CSUEB, etc.

    Also, you may see a lot of incompetent “old” teachers but there are plenty of incompetent “young” teachers so let’s be fair.

  • local teacher


    I can understand your frustration as you look for jobs and find that there is a lot of competition. However, you are making blanket statements about several groups of people(older, experienced teachers and teachers trained in alternative ways) and are making assumptions about their effectiveness.

    With anything, there are many teachers in both of those categories that are highly effective and many teachers that struggle greatly. The most effective teachers at my site are as follows: a 27 year veteran and a 23 year old TFA teacher. They are both extremely dedicated and get amazing results with their students. Of course, I’m only providing you with two examples, but there is a lot of research out there that shows that TFA teachers are highly effective, and a lot of research that shows that veteran teachers are highly effective.

  • Jim Mordecai


    If you use the School Board on line search engine for file number 08-1865 you will find the latest contract for TNTP and the contract is for $$863,215.

    This money is suppose to pay for recruitment, selection, and training of teachers in Program Improvement and Title I schools through Oakland Teaching Fellows and Oakland City Teacher Corps for the current school year. The contract called for 125-150 teachers to be supplied to the District.

    Consider the number of teachers being cut in this budget crisis this statement made in 8-27-08 seems problematic: “Consistent with years past, the District projects a continue need for 125-150 new teachers to begin the 2009-2010 school year.”

    The total cost is more than $863,215 because the contract money does not cover training stipends for participants.

    According to the District website “Each year TNTP has brought resources to the District through grants and federal funding to help subsidize the cost of the work.” USOE paid approximately $302,023 in Transition to teaching grants, $58,494 for training stipends.

    “Through Measure E, the District will contribute $561,192 to this year’s program costs, as well as training stipends paid to participants. A total of $702,00 in Measure E has been allocated for the program costs and training stipend.”

    In a program supposedly costing $863,215 the District pays $703,000 in Measure E money. The administrative overhead cost of this complicated program is not transparent.

    I also note that the District cost of Expect Success has been $15 million.

    I suggest that chasing grants and federal dollars may not be a good strategy when it is necessary to shrink the budget. Perhaps budgeting in these times keeping it simple might be appropriate.

    Jim Mordecai

  • cranky teacher

    Sara, you are having a bit of the woe-is-mes. Happens to me all the time, but you need to shake it off. You’ll only hurt yourself.

    A. Social Studies has been shrinking in priority every year for a couple of decades. It’s all about ELA and math. You might think about getting an English credential, too, to make yourself more attractive to schools — especially middle schools, where a lot of schools core soc.st. and ELA. Becoming a history teacher has always been the toughest “get” ouside of the arts in the public schools. Hey, you knew that history degree wasn’t going to guarantee a phat career!

    B. Local Teacher said it best: You are making sweeping generalizations about who makes a good teacher. Everybody does it, but that doesn’t make it better. Older teachers can burn out, young teachers can be overwhelmed (or arrogant), but stereotypes are just that.

    C. Your credential does allow you to teach in middle school. Just because this is scary doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it.

    D. You’ll never find a worse time to look for a job than RIGHT NOW. However, if you make yourself VERY available at the end of August you may be surprised by how many schools are frantically trying to fill rooms because they cut back to far with May and August 15 layoffs.

    E. Private schools and charter schools employ teachers, too, and don’t use TFA, etc.

    F. Be careful what you wish for: Have you taught history before? Have you looked at the state standards? Did you know world history is the most failed class in the state and the district? Did you know that nationally, history is ranked DEAD LAST in high school students list of favorites, BELOW MATH?!

    Good luck!

  • cranky teacher

    Aly, I really appreciate your kind words. I do wonder sometimes if folks actually get much out of my kind of middle-of-the-road commentaries which aren’t necessarily as provocative as some folks I could name…

  • Peggy Hakanson

    I have only been teaching for three years, but it has been my experience that administrators would like to have the most effective teachers in place but have few options of making sure that this is so.

    There is a high turnover rate in our district. One reason is that health care coverage is a thing of the past. Many new teachers start here and then move on to districts which provide the missing benefits.

    Under these conditions, I am sure there have been times when a “warm body” is all that is necessary to fit the bill!!

    Another issue that will only make it more difficult to retain teachers of excellence is that we are being made to wear many more hats than in the past. Teachers are getting burnt out sooner due to the number of responsibilities and extended hours doing these that are required today.

    At our school, we have to pitch in with keeping the campus clean, as well as our classrooms. We are assigned to 2 extra curricular activities per year. We do yard duty and after school tutoring. In addition, we have many more meetings daily than in the past.

    Now that we are going through drastic budget cuts, I’m sure this will only add to the number of things teachers will be left to handle in the future. The last ones standing will be given excellent reviews.

  • another local teacher


    Please get your facts straight before publishing something that has a very large audience. I was brought in by Oakland City Teacher Corps as a social studies teacher, and now work with OCTC to recruit other highly qualified teachers. The average years in the classroom for the last years cohort was 3 years, and many, if not half are not “kids” as you put it(which I am assuming to mean people under the age of 27). Through this program, and others like it, Oakland is able to cast a wider net for teachers which means they get teachers with more diverse backgrounds and experiences. Also, with the amount of candidates that show interest, they are also able to be highly selective, ensuring that the best candidate for the job is in the classroom, not merely someone who has a credential.

    Each year, out of the 50+ teachers hired to staff Oakland’s hardest to staff schools through OCTC, less then five are Social Studies. Also, you are not competing for Social Studies jobs from Oakland Teaching Fellows as they only staff science, math and special ed in secondary school. I also believe Teach for America does not staff staff many social studies positions either, but I am not absolutely positive on that front. And finally, it looks like from the other comment that project pipeline does not staff schools.

    So I am really unclear about what you are complaining about. Out of all those organizations that you mentioned, it boils down to less then five Social Studies teachers guaranteed a job in Oakland each year. There are several openings for Social Studies teachers each year(there were at least 10 the year I applied, just in Oakland alone), so either you aren’t looking hard enough or aren’t successful in interviews. Either way, do not blame others for your lack of job.

    Also, do some research before you make such sweeping generalizations. Out of the top five teachers(of more then 20) at the middle school I teach at, 4 of them have come through the Oakland Teaching Fellows program.

    I realize this sounds very combative, and I just want to be clear I intended this comment to set the record straight, with many of these programs, that are making great gains in student achievement.