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.