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Bringing the 4 Rs to Teacher & Principal Evaluation

by Justin Baeder | @eduleadership

Most of my non-educator friends work for a handful of companies in the software industry, and I always listen carefully when they tell me about how they are evaluated.

Performance evaluations in the private sector have three direct consequences: retention, promotion, and compensation. Depending on your evaluation, you can be fired, promoted, or given a raise. In education, I think it's fair to say these are rarely outcomes of the teacher or principal evaluation processes.

Instead, the reality is that teacher evaluations are often perfunctory, lacking in meaningfulness, and have little or no impact on the quality of teaching and learning.

How do we address this as a profession? It may help to think of teacher and principal evaluations in terms of rigor, relevance, relationships, and results. This common formulation for effective teaching—providing students with the 4 R's—applies to teacher (and principal) evaluation as well.

Rigor
While individual principals will defend their decisions to rate all teachers "satisfactory," the large-scale statistics are sobering. Chicago found that 99.7% of its teachers were rated satisfactory or better, and other districts are similarly Polyanna-ish: An Illinois study from 2005 found that only 17% of districts had rated even a single teacher "unsatisfactory" (CSSR).

Clearly, we have some work to do in making teacher evaluations more rigorous. Low standards insult the professionals who work tirelessly to meet higher personal standards, and allow the clock-watchers who are harming children to stay on the payroll.

The leadership task is obvious: be honest, don't inflate ratings, and take the process seriously.

Relevance
Teachers themselves report that their annual evaluations are not all that useful as stimuli for professional growth. Collaborating with peers and pursuing professional interests independently are more powerful forces for growth for many teachers.

How can the goal-setting and evaluation process be made more relevant? If teachers can set goals that matter to them personally (while maintaining alignment with school goals), and if they can work together on identical or similar goals, the relevance factor goes up.

If teachers are not setting and working toward goals they find relevant, this is one sign that the process isn't being treated seriously enough. If the principal has never provided meaningful feedback on areas of strength and weakness, it's hard to expect teachers to identify meaningful goals.

Relationships
There's a reason teachers are evaluated by administrators who work in the same building: Evaluations require close knowledge of the work done by the person as well as knowledge of the person as a professional.

This is different from saying teachers (and principals) should be evaluated by leaders who are really their friends and who will treat them sympathetically. Instead, I'm suggesting that knowledge of the working conditions and unique opportunities and challenges is essential for making a fair assessment of an educator's performance.

This is especially important when the principal has made other decisions based on knowledge of the teacher; for example, if harder-to-teach students are purposefully assigned to a certain teacher because the principal believes she can best meet their needs, this may impact certain measures of the teacher's performance, and this needs to be factored into the evaluation.

Conversely, principals can push for greater growth and better performance when they know the conditions under which a teacher is working are optimal. But this can't be done from a distance—it must be done with intimate firsthand knowledge of the teaching and learning taking place in the classroom.

Results
Finally, there is no reason to fear the use of student performance in teacher and principal evaluations. Teachers and principals exist to ensure that students learn. It's only reasonable, then, that we take measures of student performance into consideration when determining what rating to give a teacher or principal.

A few caveats: Formulas do not capture the nuance of teaching and are easily manipulated, so student performance data should be interpreted in the context of rich knowledge of the realities of the classroom (see my previous post on this topic). In addition, using student performance data for "accountability" is probably less productive than using it to inform discussions about teaching practice. If students failed to reach the target, where does this leave us? Is it more productive to conclude that the teacher should be dismissed, or that we have some work to do in figuring out why students failed to make the progress we expected?

I don't want to discourage teachers from setting and pursuing ambitious goals, and I don't want to place so much importance on a few outcomes that the rest of professional practice is distorted to ensure that they are met. Teaching is complex and multi-dimensional, and evaluations—even those that strongly emphasize data—should not incentivize teachers to reduce their roles to helping students score well on a single measure.

With those caveats in mind, it's essential to include some measures of student learning in the teacher and principal evaluation process.

Getting Started
My goal-setting meeting with my supervisor is this week, so I'm working on my professional goals now. Teacher goal-setting is also beginning, and we are for the first time using a new evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching.

We have a choice: We can make this a perfunctory, here-we-go-again process, or we can choose to make it rigorous, relevant, and oriented toward using our professional relationships to maximize our impact on student learning.

How are evaluations approached in your school? What do you plan to do differently this year?

Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) is a public school principal in Seattle, Washington. He speaks and writes about principal performance and productivity, and is a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies.

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