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Peter DeWitt: What I'm Reading This Summer

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This post, written by Peter DeWitt, is the second in BookMarks' summer reading series penned by www.edweek.org opinion bloggers.

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Peter DeWitt is the principal of Poestenkill Elementary School in Averill Park, N.Y., and was named the New York State Outstanding Educator for 2013 by the School Administrators Association of New York State. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog and last year published Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin, 2012).


Evaluating America's Teachers

Evaluation is such an important part of the educational process ... if it is done with integrity. It doesn't matter if a superintendent is evaluating a principal or a principal is evaluating a teacher, in these days of increased accountability, evaluation is more important than ever.

Although I do not agree with state decisions to tie point scales to teacher and administrator evaluation, I do agree that the process of evaluating teachers and principals is just as important as evaluating students. For that reason I am constantly looking for books that will help me complete the evaluative process with integrity.

One book that is at the top of my summer reading list, besides Dan Brown's Inferno, is Evaluating America's Teachers: Mission Possible? by W. James Popham (Corwin, 2013). Truth be told, I reviewed the book for Corwin Press and loved it, but there is so much more in the final copy than I saw in the original. The final version offers many more practical steps, as well as action items, that will help leaders and teachers get the most out of evaluation.

It's not one of those top-down books.

It doesn't blame teachers or administrators for all of the failures of America.

It is a book that will help us focus our energy in a positive way to improve our practices ... not just the practice of teachers, but of administrators as well.

Testing Evaluation

Popham delves into what underlies today's evaluation programs. He cautions policymakers on the steps they are taking and forcing educators to take with them. He says:

You see, if we start labeling tests as valid, then soon we start ascribing interpretive accuracy to the tests themselves. That's a mistake. Remember, it is human beings who make test-based inferences. And abundant evidence is at hand showing that human beings can make mistakes—usually every few hours. Thus, we need to be careful that the tests we use in a properly designed teacher-appraisal system do, in fact, contribute to a valid (that is, accurate) inference about a teacher's quality.

Popham goes on to explore the human judgment involved in the process of evaluating teachers. Where human judgment is concerned Popham writes:

By the time we try to sort out and, perhaps, compensate for the significant differences in particular teachers' instructional settings, differences that are more likely to represent a dozen such differences than merely one or two, the likelihood of accurate comparisons among different teachers becomes more and more difficult. A teacher's instructional setting matters—enormously.

Prove It!

One of the most important aspects to classroom observation is the role evidence plays in the process. As a school principal I look for evidence from the moment I walk in to do an observation to the moment I walk out. I want the observation process to be done with integrity because my teachers deserve it. They deserve effective feedback every time we have formal conversations.

Too often in the past, observations were seen as something to get through. Principals used checklists, and teachers walked away garnering very little insight into what they do well and where they can improve.

In my own observations as a new teacher, my principal sat at my desk looking through his wallet while I taught, and my formal narrative was a document I had written as part of my formal reflection. I walked away from the process feeling very disappointed because observation is supposed to be about feedback.

In his book, Popham describes the following places for evaluators to gain evidence of instructional practices and student learning.

Evidence from:
• Standardized Tests
• Classroom assessments
• Classroom observations
• Ratings
• Sundry Sources

The summer gives educators a time to reflect on the previous year, recharge their batteries, and focus on how to improve in the next year to come. That is a luxury not everyone has, and we should use it with integrity.

There are clearly lots of mandates and accountability working against us, but we also have to look at some changes as an opportunity to improve. Not because the state wants us to or the media makes fun of us ... but because we want to.

As Popham writes in the book, "Given the right evidence and the suitable weighting of that evidence, appropriately evaluating America's teachers is definitely possible. For the sake of the children those teachers teach, we need to make this possibility a reality."

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