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Grading (and Improving) Teaching: Alternatives to Standardized Tests

The Chicago teacher strike ended this evening with union president Karen Lewis stating at the press conference, "We said we couldn't solve all the problems in the world with one contract, and it was time to end the strike." One issue of contention between the school board and the union was the extent to which teacher evaluations should be tied to students' scores on standardized tests, a subject I discussed in my last entry. This week, I'd like to discuss alternate means of evaluating teacher efficacy.

1) Professional observations: This one's obvious. In most schools, the principal or assistant principal walks in periodically, announced or un-announced depending on contractual regulations and school policy, to see what's taking place in a classroom. Obviously, walking in during a moment of insanity doesn't automatically indicate a teacher with no classroom management, nor does walking in during a moment of relative calm and organization denote a consistently successful class. Nevertheless, the eye-witness approach does have its place, particularly when used by administrators to design more useful and meaningful professional development.

2) Peer-to-peer observations: Good teachers know good pedagogy when they see it. An administrative decision to designate individual teachers--perhaps department leaders-- or teams of teachers to evaluate each other may seem intimidating. However, peer teachers are often more aware of the challenges faced by their peers than administrators, who may not have as close contact with a given group of students--thus, they have a better context for observations. They also may be able to suggest more applicable remedies for common pedagogical snafus: Once, when I was a new teacher, I asked a senior teacher I respected to come into a troublesome class and tell me what I was doing wrong. After sitting there for one period, he suggested modifications in seating arrangements, lesson order, and general management that improved my experience with this difficult group of kids.

3) Teaching portfolios: Teachers are regularly asked to produce unit maps to show curricular alignment with CCLS standards, and part of our evaluations could be reliant on these and other "teaching artifacts." Evidence of good teaching can be found in the creativity and diversity of assignments, daily lesson plans, even assessments we create for students. For instance, I actually think I write really good tests: My multiple choice questions require close-reading and analysis of a passage (which I provide for the kids on the test itself) rather than testing rote memory. Teachers in our school turn in copies of their finals at the end of the term, which are usually just checked for Regents-alignment; but I'd like it if someone noticed the care I take writing serious questions!

4) Student work: Along the lines of teaching artifacts, I think looking at student work provides a good window into a teacher's efficacy. I keep portfolios for my students. Over the course of the year, I sometimes ask students to look at their work and reflect on ways that they've improved so far, and on ways they hope to improve. Similarly, I think looking at improvements in students' written work (or, for math and science, work that shows a progression of tackling more and more difficult problems) is a great indicator of what learning is being done in class--without the pressure of producing it in a testing environment.

5) Ask the kids: Over the course of my time teaching, I've realized the kids are actually pretty good judges of whether they're learning in a class. I used to think they'd base their judgments on irrelevant factors, such as whether the teacher in question was funny or good-looking. However, my assumption was proven incorrect when, last spring, I gave them an assignment: to write a letter to a teacher who WASN'T me (no kissing up allowed!) expressing appreciation for his or her efforts. There was a particular history teacher--whom I greatly respect--about whom the students endlessly complained: he was too difficult, too demanding, gave boring lectures, etc. However, when I gave my letter-writing assignment, the vast majority of students wrote to him--some anonymously--telling him how well he'd prepared them for the Regents, how interesting his lessons were, and how much they appreciated the thought he put into his comments on their papers. It showed me that, even if they'd complain the entire year, the kids knew what a good teacher looked like, and they weren't afraid to say so.

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