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Shifting Assumptions About Teacher Evaluation and Professional Learning

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By Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director of Learning Forward

I was at a conference recently and during a discussion period had the opportunity to dialogue with colleagues — we were seating ourselves according to our interests as indicated by table tents. As I approached the table labeled "teacher evaluation," I cheerfully remarked, "Oh, I can't sit with you. You won't want to talk about professional learning."

Oh no, my colleagues cried — sit with us! That's all we want to talk about. I realized I was holding an assumption that was out of date. When the teacher effectiveness conversation heated up many months ago, the focus swiftly turned to evaluation, without much mention of teacher support or growth.

Fortunately, however, many (though certainly not all) participants in this conversation have moved in the direction of recognizing the importance of teacher support as part of evaluation systems. Advocates for meaningful evaluation systems acknowledge that attending to the development of teacher knowledge and skills is essential on any pathway to improvement.

I am hopeful about this evolution in the discussion of building better teacher evaluation systems. And yet if results for all students remains our goal, our discussion of better professional learning cannot stop with attention to personalized professional learning attached to teacher evaluations. Effective professional learning systems impact more than one teacher at a time, they ensure every student is experiencing great teaching every day and that best practices are spreading from classroom to classroom and school to school. To be a truly transformative strategy, professional learning addresses three learning purposes at multiple levels.

  1. As addressed in current evaluation systems and decades of development efforts, professional learning addresses the needs of the individual educator. What does he or she need to know to best serve the students in his or her classroom? Yet without the next level of learning, the growth of the individual — and his or her potential for impact — remains limited.

  2. What do educators need at the team and school levels? Learning communities use data to identify where student learning gaps for both students and educators persist, explore what strategies have succeeded, how educators can gain them, and support each other in implementing and assessing the impact of their new knowledge and skills. As the team's collective knowledge grows, so does collective responsibility, and more students experience the collective impact of the intentional learning and application of the team and the entire school community.

  3. Finally, professional development for program implementation ensures that educators have the knowledge and skills to meet state, system, and often school improvement goals. Learning is aligned throughout the system and student goals and results are coherent. Teachers are clear on the expectations associated with program expectations. Families who move from school to school are assured that all teachers are consistently prepared and supported in implementing new curricula and assessments. Support is planned and delivered to ensure deep and successful implementation of district priorities.

Next time as I search for a table discussion, I hope to find many tents labeled professional learning, acknowledging that the most important subject all my colleagues address is how we build and sustain capacity for the important jobs we face daily. Then I will know our national attention is focused on the strategy with the greatest potential to ensure every child and every educator is receiving the support needed to be successful.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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