Evaluating “White-Space” Educators. . .

I was poking around the blog of my favorite arch-enemy Jay Greene—whose book Education Myths is one of the most offensive and inaccurate portrayals of life in the classroom ever to stumble out of a right-wing chop shop—the other day and came across this interesting bit by guest blogger Matthew Ladner.

In it, Ladner takes a sharp turn away from Greene’s unwavering support of using student test scores as an indicator of teacher performance and as a criteria for performance pay programs by exploring the career contributions of professional basketball player Shane Battier—a guy who doesn’t tear it up in the statistics column but who plays for champions year after year.

Ladner argues that Battier is a “white-space” employee—-one of those people who get important things done, but goes overlooked because their contributions are difficult to measure.  When comparing Battier to teachers, he writes:

Is there an education angle here? Yes indeed. Battier is what business guys call a “white space” employee. The term refers to the space between boxes on an organizational chart. A white space employee is someone who does whatever it takes to achieve organizational goals and makes the organization work much better as a whole.

As we move into the era of value-added analysis for teacher merit pay, this article provides much food for thought. School leaders must consider carefully what they will reward, and give some consideration to how white space behavior is rewarded.

Rewards should not just be based on individual learning gains- reaching school wide goals should also be strongly rewarded. Otherwise my incentive as a math teacher will be to assign six hours of math homework a night- and to hell with everyone else (see Iverson, Allen).

These ideas are intriguing to me simply because they ring true.  The contributions that I make—both to the students in my classroom and to the faculty members in my building—-stretch far beyond the results of the end of grade exams that I give each spring.

I’m the guy that’s here 14 hours a day doing anything from coaching kids to reading professional literature and working to bring structure to the work of our learning teams.  I’m an idea guy, crafting instructional strategies that others often embrace and tailor to their own settings.

Some of that work has to be making a difference, don’t you think?

But when you look at my test scores, I’m the worst teacher on the hallway.

In the comment section of his entry, Ladner goes on to explain how “white-space” work can be rewarded in schools.  He writes:

Of course, principals should also be judged based upon the overall gains of their schools. When they are, principals will have a strong incentive to reward white space employees.

This makes sense to me because if principals are held directly accountable for
measurable gains, they’re going to have to work a whole lot harder to figure out which “white space” employees are having
the most impact, aren’t they?

In my experience, principals rarely understand the impact of individual faculty members beyond the “this guy’s a team player” conclusions drawn from gut reactions and chance encounters in the hallway between classes.  Clearly that’s not a sophisticated approach to evaluating the contributions of teachers beyond tests.

Now for the real question, though: Do most principals have the skill and ability to identify white space impacts?

(I’ve certainly never worked for a statistician!)

And if not, how can we support the development of those kinds of observational skills in our building leaders?

8 comments

  1. Matthew Ladner

    J-
    I don’t think any subject is untestable. A group of public school principals from Virginia have developed a software product that allows teachers to develop common assessment items based on state standards. They then do brief monthly assessments and the software platform does ongoing value added analysis.
    Teachers are collectively in control of the process, but progress can be measured at the class level.
    Merit pay could be done collectively or individually. Doing it collectively by department would help with white space issues.

  2. J

    What about those of us “whitespacers” who teach in an important but un-testable specialty subject area? Will we become extinct? Or even more underpaid?
    I think that teachers SHOULD be paid more, and that this pay should not be based on standardized test scores alone. We don’t just grade our students on only multiple-choice tests alone, and we shouldn’t be paid (or fired) based on one metric. This line of thinking is flawed.
    We trust doctor’s and lawyer’s professional judgement. Why isn’t there a greater trust in educator’s and education administrator’s?

  3. tweenteacher

    Wild Bill,
    First I want to applaud the structure of your writing. You always make me think and, at times, it’s in a “white space” kind of way in that you weave your opinion by choosing choice selections from others. Wow, far more subtle then I. Anyway, this is a frightening prospect. If these teachers are overlooked (not “if”, but “since”) another question would be, are they to be held accountable for publicizing their own successes? Or are we to always reward the extrovert only? This observational rubric must include recognition for intangibles. Hmmm….I must dwell further.
    -Heather
    aka Tweenteacher

  4. Ariel Sacks

    Bill, this is a brilliant foreshadowing of the doom that is coming if we really move to using test scores as the measure of a teacher’s value. There are so many different ways to contribute to an organization; that’s the whole thing about working collaboratively, and test scores don’t revel anything about it. In terms of admin’s–I do think my principal sees the white space employees; one of her strengths is recognizing and capitlizing on the diverse strengths of our staff. How to develop this in more principals? not sure…

  5. Melissa Garner

    @Barry – what about sponsoring a “Make a Difference Monday” (or something like it) and asking your entire school to do something little for someone who’s impacted their teaching/learning/work. That way people who have a profound impact on your school community – teachers, classified staff, or students – could feel rewarded by the people who matter most: their constituents and peers. In my experience, a community of grateful people will inspire everyone to do better.
    @Bill – Thanks for bringing this analogy to light! I am an instructional technologist working in our district’s Technology Department. I DO have a box on our org chart, but it hangs off our main branch since there’s no obvious place to put me. I will be using this analogy to describe what I do both in terms of Technology and Curriculum.

  6. Barry

    Bill,
    Great post. As an administrator, I note and often appreciate these “white spacers”. They are what make effective schools effective. However, barring merit pay (which I am strongly against due to lack of a way to quantify the criteria) how does a principal “reward” good teachers over the not-so-good? When I was a principal, the best I could do was a hand-written note in the mailbox or a handshake and a thank you. I couldn;t quite buya breakfast for the white-spacers and bar the not-so-goods. I couldn’t tell the white spacers to go home early and take the day off. We can’t give a big bonus like AIG. (Hmmm, bad example.) So, what CAN administrators do to reward the white spacers?

  7. Angela Stockman

    I’m wondering…is it building principals or higher-ups who tend to lack these observational skills? In my own experience, I can name at least a dozen (or more) building principals who recognize and appreciate “white space” educators, but those who are more removed from buildings tend not to as often (again, in my experience). They pressure the building principals to pressure the teachers to “bring up the scores” by advocating for changes that may actually bring the scores down.
    That said, your entire post has me reconsidering an essential question posed by Jenn Borgioli on Twitter a while back (@datadiva there)–is it possible to quanitfy learning? I’m not sure…..and we’re in the business of improving learning, not scores. Is it reasonable, though, that a substantial number of effective learners perform poorly on standardized tests? I’m not sure about that either….

  8. dan

    my overall thoughts on merit pay aside, i worry about gifted students and how ‘growth’ may stigmatize their efforts in the classroom. often their growth isn’t linear and/or measureable in the same ways as other children. similarly, the amount of growth possible by a standardized scoring scale may have a ceiling, thus making the ‘undesireable’ to have in class due their limits (ha!) in terms of a merit pay scale.
    on a related note, i think i too should find a blogging nemesis…i’ll be on the lookout.