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Are We Learning From Evaluations?

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The new teacher and principal evaluation systems have been adopted and are being implemented across the country. In some cases those systems have reduced evaluation of human performance to numbers.  3.5 out of 4.0 or 56.8 out of 60 is naturally translated to us as .5 from excellent or 3.2 from a perfect score.  Post observation conferences are too often focused on what isn't being done well enough.  Whether it is the intention of the meeting or not, that seems to be the take-away.  It is a common experience for us to focus on the negative, rather than the positive.

The strange thing about all of this is, with or without research, we know that positive feedback and good relationships are foundations for good morale and motivating growth while negative feedback and charged relationships are dangerous contributors to low morale and little or no growth.  So, on a gut level, and as a result of research, we know a positive environment and positive feedback work wonders.  Dan Goleman's article in the Harvard Business Review hits the nail on the head regarding the emotional challenges that exist when providing feedback to teachers and leaders. In his article, he cites brain research that reveals we are actually wired to respond to positive feedback. He also reports on the work of Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina. Goleman reports:

She found that positive feelings can motivate us to work toward a better future. She finds that people who do well in their private and work lives alike generally have a higher ratio of positive states to negative ones during their day.

The unfortunate rush to implement by learning the evaluation system, using it, and meeting deadlines, placed us in a position that did little to raise morale among faculties and established a strange dichotomy within the evaluation system.  On one hand, a score was received, disappointment may have arisen, and then, the dangerous response, "I really don't care."  The process is a debilitating one that, if done incorrectly, drains energy from those who need to do the work in schools. But the truth is we all care about being evaluated fairly.  A shift that can be accomplished in schools, with no need for legislation or regulation, is the attitude with which we evaluate our students and teachers and principals.

This moment, the one in which the adults are suddenly in a similar position as the students, can be the moment for compassion and empathy to fuel some serious thinking about how we use evaluation.  Do we use it to motivate? Do we use it to report? Is it used to inform instruction or professional development?  Is it used to label a period of performance with a number?  This is a time to ask ourselves what we truly know about good assessment and evaluation and how we are using it.

The same good practice that should exist in classrooms for students should be used in the evaluation of teachers and principals.  How can we address this with a leadership mind?  In 1975 a Handbook for Faculty Development was published for the Council for the Advancement of Small Colleges.  In it they list 13 characteristics that certainly apply.  Feedback needs to be descriptive rather than evaluative. Sound familiar?  In the new teacher and principal evaluation systems, the requirement to provide 'evidence' is exactly that.  No interpretation, no value judgment, simply what was seen. Included in the 13 is also that feedback be specific, can be responded to, is well timed, is the right amount (too much can't be addressed at once), includes information sharing rather than telling, is solicited (or welcomed as helpful) and plays a role in the development of trust, honesty, and a genuine concern. 

If our goal is to create and maintain environments in which students, teachers, and principals can continue to take learning risks in order to push the finish line ahead, raise the bar, and improve the learning environment for everyone, these and other values and actions need to be instilled. Although the rushed implementation of the teacher and principal evaluation system may have resulted in it being implemented as a summative labeling process, why not take the time to refocus and take advantage of the opportunity to change the way all evaluation of performance is done in our schools?

How we evaluate student work is so varied, it fills volumes.  But the daily use of assessments in classrooms serve one purpose - to report on the students' understanding of something.  Whether formative and used to direct instruction, or summative and used to close the door and label the learning as a percentage understood, the assessment results speak to students and parents.  They either raise hopes and build confidence or disappoint and discourage.  By the time students are in middle school, often the encouragement that was embedded in some of their grades evaporate and the cold hard numbers on those papers become sobering. Some write comments to the students on the returned papers and many are encouraging.  But the number or letter is what speaks the loudest and rarely does it motivate engagement in the learning process.

This moment is causing discomfort among evaluators and those being evaluated. That is not necessarily a bad thing.  This moment can be the very best moment to begin a discussion about assessment, how it is being used, what its value is, and if there is any consistency across the school or district in its use.  The giving and receiving of feedback is a skill and most of us have little experience and little formal training in this two way process. If teachers are having feelings about their evaluation results, then they are in a perfect position to understand what it feels like for their students.  This is a positive, though unintended, consequence of the reform agenda.

We are institutions of learning.  Measuring that learning serves three masters.  One is accountability, one is achievement reporting and the most important is leading growth. Has the student/teacher/principal learned the objective?  to what standard? If assessment is seen and treated as important feedback in the learning process, its use can be heralded. If it is seen as a criticism or judgment, it will be regarded as a deflator, a morale buster, and a waste of time.  The attitude we bring to assessment, whether of the children or the adults, can make the difference. 

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