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Six Questions About Teacher Evaluation

My name is Nancy, and I had a 30-year career in the classroom, where I was never evaluated, except by... (dramatic pause) checklist. And yet--somehow, I continued to teach and my students continued to learn, and the community continued to be satisfied with my teaching-- not to mention their public schools and my colleagues, similarly assessed via checklist.

Recently, nearly every story about improving teacher evaluation begins with the Bad Old Days, where substandard teachers slipped through the cracks, due to thoroughly inadequate attention to and assessment of their work.  If you believe these op-eds, teachers' core work was essentially carried out without scrutiny. Until--drumroll--new and rigorous evaluation protocols, always including lots of student testing data, turned everything around.  Evaluations! The cure for both listless teaching and anemic test scores!

I'm not saying that we can't do a better job of providing teachers with feedback to continuously fine-tune their practice. Nor am I denying that some teachers need to improve or be counseled, swiftly, out of a job. Only this: we might be granting shiny new teacher evaluation protocols a lot more power and veracity than they deserve.

A few core questions that ought to guide any evaluation of teaching:

Note: These do not seem to be the questions driving many of the new, "more rigorous" teacher evaluation models popping up across the country, driven by promises made in RTTT applications:

#1. Is it teachers or their teaching we're assessing? It makes a difference. If we're observing, analyzing and reflecting on the process of teaching, there are always changes that can be made, strategies adopted, new skills learned, attitudes adjusted. If we're simply stack-ranking educators, with the intention of lopping off the least "effective," any process we use will fail, whether it includes standardized test scores or not. Lately, we seem to have shifted from improving teaching to alternately blaming or idolizing teachers. We are no longer evaluating with the goal of ongoing changes in practice; we're blinded by science and "metrics." We have even injected ratings competition into teacher evaluation.

#2. When should we evaluate teaching? The correct answer is: all the time, whether teachers are green and struggling or three-decade veterans.  Ideally, teaching should be dissected frequently--every day, by colleagues and students, as well as the teacher herself--with an eye toward what's getting desired results, and what isn't working very well. Beginning teachers need continuous feedback and structured conversations with more experienced teachers. But so do long-termers, who get stale, must teach something new--or simply desire a continuous stream of new ideas and strategies. When we assume that only one (or two, or six) formal evaluations "count," we've lost sight of the purpose of evaluation.

#3. Who should evaluate teaching? Who is best positioned to craft a philosophy of evaluation and assessment protocols for teachers? A teacher who cannot honestly and critically examine his own work for its impact on students will never get much better. When Bill Gates was touting the MET--wherein videos of teaching were evaluated by remote scorers--I wondered how anyone could presume that watching a video without knowing the context, or hearing teachers' rationales about their instructional decisions, was a valid way of helping educators improve. Teachers must have the conceptual framework and tools to self-assess and grow.

A building administrator probably understands school context better than a neutral party, and peers can provide even more information about the value of certain choices teachers make in classroom practice. There must be open communication between evaluator and practitioner. Adopting a commercial model, or following a single state-mandated protocol, can produce lots of data--but it's possible that none of it would be even remotely useful in changing practice. Especially if the teacher isn't paying attention to her own work, believing an outsider is better positioned to tell her if she's on the right track. Teachers must become assessment-literate, both for their students, and for their own work.

#4. Why haven't teachers -- and their associations--proposed better evaluation protocols, since teachers have been organized for most the last century? I am mystified about why teachers have not proposed their own--better, custom-tailored-- evaluation protocols, and frustrated by the fact that teachers have been backed into resisting the evaluations approved by lawmakers and blue-ribbon commissions. Perhaps this is where the "we need something more than checklists" refrain began--with the standard union-contract checklist evaluation familiar to teachers since the 1960s. Here's an idea: What if we asked teachers in each state or district what critical competencies and accomplishments made up the profile of excellent teaching, then evaluated them on their own criteria?

#5.  Why is it impossible to believe in the school where every teacher is effective? This one drives me crazy--the repeated media panic-meme of the school or district where "only" three percent of the teachers are rated "ineffective." Why is there an automatic assumption that the flaw lies with the assessment model, or the administrator doing the observation--that a higher percentage of teachers must necessarily be under the bar?  If a district is hiring carefully, mentoring new teachers and providing ongoing professional learning, why wouldn't upwards of 95% of their teachers be performing at a level somewhere between competent and amazing? That's what other organizations, from law firms to landscaping businesses, do--hire the best available, train them, then monitor.  Why have we set evaluation cut scores to automatically label a group of teachers "ineffective?"

#6. What's driving the urgent, heavily advertised changes in teacher evaluation? Who decides what "best practice" is, when evaluating teachers?

The answer to this question--and your mileage will vary here--is key to the whole conundrum of why and how to evaluate teachers. If you're OK with non-educators evaluating teachers' work, or on a quest to diminish fully public education, seeing it as an expensive liability, rather than an investment, then you've got your talking points prepared, beginning with the checklist and the Bad Old Days.

If you're a teacher or school leader, I ask you again: If you had the time and resources to do teacher evaluation right, what would it look like?

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