Thursday, December 15, 2011

Teacher Evaluation: It Shouldn't Be That Important Right Now, But I'll Blog About It Anyway

The following post was cross-posted at TeachHub.com.

Teacher evaluation is at the top of the list of things to talk about in the education reform world. I've largely stayed away from writing about it on this blog because I think there are a lot of more fundamental changes that need to be made in public education before we spend time revamping teacher evaluation. It seems to me that a lot of new evaluation schemes are attempting to hold teachers accountable for factors they don't control and penalize them for shortcomings for which they are not responsible.

Nonetheless, I recently participated in two teacher webinars that spent a decent amount of time discussing teacher evaluation and the way it's done around the country. So it got me thinking. But I'd like to make it clear that while changes in teacher evaluation need to happen (and that those changes could definitely have positive effects on student achievement) I think this intense discussion about the importance of teacher evaluation is off-base. It's putting the cart before the horse. Until we support teachers adequately, find useful ways of assessing their efficacy, and murder the ridiculous notion that student achievement is synonymous with standardized test scores, I believe improvements in teacher evaluation systems will make either only small improvements in student achievement in some places or harm it in others.

So now that that's out of the way....

How should teachers be evaluated?

Teachers know that a lot of the work that goes into creating a highly-functioning classroom is done outside of the school day. It's done during phone calls home to parents, during conferences with students after school, during planning, curricular development, and grading. However, in four of the five schools I've worked at, my evaluators (all of whom have been administrators except for one master educator in Washington, DC) have all been far to busy to gather evidence of my abilities as a teacher outside of the short classroom observation.

Teachers know that classroom observations provide evaluators with a lot of basic information regarding a teacher's ability to relate with students, use effective classroom management techniques, and respond to student misunderstanding. However, they do not allow evaluators to see all of the work teachers do after school, long-term instruction over multiple days, or the way they collaborate with their colleagues.

So it seems clear that the limited classroom observation model of teacher evaluation has significant flaws. In response, a number of teacher evaluation systems have been constructed across the country that have attempted to address this flaw. In DC, IMPACT asks evaluators to consider a teachers' expertise in a number of different domains, using test scores as one indicator of teacher effectiveness. States across the country have recently been passing laws requiring that test scores be included in teacher evaluations. In some states, teachers who do not teach tested subjects are having their evaluations based in part on the way their students perform in the tested subjects they don't teach (a beautiful critique of that idiotic idea here).

Useful? Maybe sometimes for some teachers. There is a large body of growing evidence, however, that suggests these evaluation models are unreliable at identifying teachers who are actually good at getting students to learn the things they should be learning.

If the purpose of teacher evaluation is to support teachers' professional development and occasionally remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, then it's clear that we have a long way to go before we create a system that's useful. After teaching in four states, five schools, and under six evaluators, I cannot honestly say that I've made any significant professional development as a result of my evaluations. Sure - I've had a few useful conversations about what I might do differently with a particular lesson, but the real objective of all of the evaluations in my career has been to fill out the district-required paperwork. And there was that one evaluation in DC during which my evaluator tried to tarnish my reputation for writing negative things about that school in my blog.

When I really sit down and think about creating teacher evaluations that would be useful and meaningful, I think about successful ways I've found to evaluate my students. I spend a lot of time supporting them in thinking about ways they're supposed to be improving and asking them how they might show me that they're improving. It means communicating expectations to them clearly and often so that they come to believe in the utility of what we're doing in class. It means supporting them in thinking about their own development and that of their peers. I think my evaluation system is most effective when self and peer assessments occur often and teacher assessment occurs habitually but less often. If teacher evaluation is going to be about supporting teachers and not firing them, then I believe a similar system would work better than what we're currently using.

As much as teacher evaluation could use work, I can't help but feel that I'm contributing to a conversation that is major red herring. Money and time spent revamping teacher evaluation, especially in poor schools, will be significantly less useful than offering teachers real support, lowering class sizes, purchasing basic materials, improving community relationships,....and the list goes on. But that's generally not what moves educational opportunists up the career ladder in our current reform environment.

Yes - let's talk about improving teacher evaluations, but let's not make it the first item on our agenda. Let's put it on the back burner until we've solved some of our more fundamental problems.


  1. The IMPACT system in DC doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Teachers get terrible scores and excellent scores teaching the same lesson in front of different evaluators. Teachers get observed in classes of 10 compliant students and other teachers get observed in classes of 30 off the wall students without enough desks for each student. Some teachers (English and Math) are evaluated by state test scores and some teachers (Science and SS) are not. The amount of time a teacher is observed is less than half of one percent of the time they teach in a year. How can an evaluator or multiple evaluators understand that teacher?

  2. How about input from parents and students? I know this may be a sensitive point for some teachers but in many ways I'd rather be held accountable by them than by the likes of Walcott/Black/Klein.

  3. I just wonder how many hours or days the average professional worker spends on having to sit through staff meetings learning their "new" evaluation systems? Are they required to jigsaw read articles, and report what they read on charts? Do they need to fill out exit slips on 3 new things they learned, 3 news things they plan to implement since getting this wonderful training, and 1 question they have?

    I have never undergone the quantity of training on any topic in my near decade with Seattle Public Schools. Content and academic training at staff meetings has been regulated to PLCs. Most staff meeting are more focused on reviewing data and the new evaluation system. Are these really the most important things to focus upon?

    SPS uses Charlotte Danielson 4-tiered framework for teacher evaluations. With the exception of a rubric instead of satisfactory/unsatisfactory, it is similar to standards of practice of the old evaluation system. I spent last year documenting how I was meeting those standards while earning my professional certification. Combining the time and effort I spent to earn the pro-cert with all the many hours I have been forced to sit through various domains of Charlotte D., has been exhausting and corrosive.


  4. BRAVO, Mr. Boutin! Well written and articulated! I second your motion!

    Can you imagine if we evaluated Doctors and Lawyers and other professionals in the way that we are talking about evaluating teachers! I can hear it now, I am sorry Dr. Trauma Emergency Room Surgeon, never mind that we only gave you a plastic fork and knife for tools, and that your waiting room was so over-crowded that you had to use one gurney per patient and that a very high percentage of your patients have multiple chronic health issues - you are NOT meeting the state standards as determined by the powers-that-be! And you Mr. Defense Attorney, are NOT winning enough cases - so off with your head, too!

    Do those powers-that-be realize that we are raising children (to be active, contributing members of a democratic society and a global world) and not corn! Corn crops can be scientifically observed and measured - the growth and harvest results are predicable and what ever strategies the grower uses (water, fertilizers or rotation schedules) can most likely be duplicated (or modified) anywhere in the united states.

    Don't they realize that there is NO such thing as a standardized child? If we are too move our schooling model out of the 19th century industrial revolution age and into the 21st century we are going to have to think differently.

    A good read on this topic of teacher evaluations and standardized testing that you raised is located at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/ - a series of letters exchanged Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. Check it out, (if you haven't already read it) I think you'll like it!

    Sasha @ www.maestrasasha.com