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My First Wish for Teacher Evaluation


Ryan Niman
If a genie in a lamp ever offers me three wishes for my profession, I'm ready.

Here's my first: "I wish for an evaluation system that measures the full set of skills necessary to be a teacher."

In my second year of teaching, my evaluator (the vice-principal) offered some sound advice: "Get rid of some extra desks and tables." My students had been bumping into each other as they moved around the room during group work. And somehow, until my evaluator mentioned it, I had never realized that I could actually get rid of some of the furniture in my classroom. This feedback helped me realize that I could be much more effective in advocating for myself and the needs of my students.

But, even at the time, I knew that this was lackluster evaluation. That vice-principal had come into my room to check on two things: my ability to keep my class under control and ability to run a decent lesson. Having confirmed that I could do both, he was looking for some other way to be of use.

And 'looking' was the key word. In most states, teacher evaluation has been based on one or two observations in a year. These observations can provide an impressive amount of feedback on a teacher's classroom management, in-the-moment teaching, and relationships with students.

But they cannot provide a complete picture of what a teacher does. Tasks that are difficult or impossible to see in the course of two observations include curriculum design and scaffolding, collaboration with and mentoring of peers, communication with parents, involvement with the community, and interactions with students before and after school.

Here's what a more comprehensive evaluation system could do:

• Yield more information to help an individual teacher improve--which in turn results in improved student learning.

• Inform decisions about professional development and staffing. And no, I don't mean the current fashion of identifying the lowest performing teachers in order to fire them. Instead, this data could drive efforts to help all staff to perform at a higher level--and it could inform hiring decisions, ensuring a well-balanced staff. This too would result in improved student learning.

• Communicate the complexity of teachers' work. If others perceive the work of teaching as merely controlling a classroom and delivering a lesson plan, then we will never be treated as professionals but as cogs in a machine. By doing more to enhance the image of teaching, we will ensure that highly qualified professionals are in classrooms with students. And this too will lead to improved student learning.

What would such an evaluation system look like? My colleagues in Washington NMI (a group of teacher-leaders supported by the Center for Teaching Quality) and I tackled this question in our report, "How Better Teacher & Student Assessment Can Power Up Learning." I'll share details in my next post.

Ryan Niman teaches English and Social Studies in the Edmonds School District north of Seattle.

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