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What Would Good Teacher Evaluation Look Like?

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In their last post together, Jack Schneider and Mercedes Schneider talk about the current state of teacher evaluation, what reformers are pushing for, and what a high-functioning system might look like.

Jack Schneider: For years, teacher evaluation was a non-issue in reform circles. There was very little public discussion of it. In the past few years, however, that has changed dramatically. We now hear very public calls for tying teacher evaluations to student standardized test scores. And there have been a number of high-profile efforts to alter teacher contracts so that those producing low student test scores can be more easily dismissed.

In our last conversation together, I'd like to talk a bit about teacher evaluation—what it looks like now, what reformers are pushing for, and what a high-functioning system might look like.

Mercedes Schneider: When I think of teacher evaluation, I put myself in the place of a principal. The principal is responsible for a school. So, it is easier for me to approach teacher evaluation if I imagine I am the one responsible.

A good teacher evaluation is mostly informal. Reputation means a lot—among students, parents, and colleagues, particularly. For example, if parents request a teacher because their older children had that teacher, I would count that as important.

That noted, I think it is equally important for a principal to be familiar with what occurs in the classroom based upon both formal and informal observation. If I were a principal, I would stroll the school, casually visit classrooms, be visible in the hallways. I would want to be able to say that I have a sense of each faculty member's teaching style.

I think building rapport with faculty is critical to evaluating teachers. Again, I think that much of this is done informally, and I believe the principal sets the tone for the school environment.

I would want my faculty to know that I will be candid in approaching them if I see practices that are questionable, and that my goal would be to remediate any practices I could not defend as occurring under my watch. However, in the end, I would have to have the moxie to draw the line if a teacher persisted in some practice that I could not defend.

A principal must be willing and able to confront issues of teacher ineffectiveness in the classroom, and as soon as possible. If remediation does not work, the teacher must go. And the principal must be the one to follow through with such dismissal.

I have some experience with "drawing the line." Several years ago, I had to fail a student teacher. We held several conferences about her teaching, and about what I saw that made me believe she would not be able to manage a classroom on her own. I was clear about what I needed to see, and I did not see it. So, I told her that I could not pass her in good conscience. It was a tough decision, but we parted on good terms. I had built a rapport with her such that she trusted my motives and judgment even though my decision was a blow to her career plans.

We also discussed her strengths and where those might take her professionally. However, I was clear that I could not offer her a positive written recommendation for her student teaching experience under my supervision.

One final note: I believe there should be a formal appeals process for dismissed teachers. It is the principal's responsibility to know the appeals protocol and to have offered the dismissed teacher the established opportunities for remediation and to have documented as such.

Jack Schneider: You make a good point about rapport. Right now there's a lot of mistrust around the process teacher evaluation. And you only get that rapport if you believe that your principal is concerned with helping you improve, and not in there looking for an excuse to fire you.

Before talking any more about principals, though, we need to dispel the illusion that principals can do it all. Principals are already incredibly pressed for time. They simply don't have enough hours in the day to be effective instructional leaders. And most principals lack the training to help teachers improve and to conduct rigorous evaluations.

So principals need more time and training. If they are going to conduct evaluations, we need to build their capacity for doing this work.

But if we're serious about instructional leadership, we can't drop the entire task in the principal's lap. We need to begin building systems of peer observation, cultivating a corps of master teachers, and investing in coaching and mentoring. The data generated through this kind of work could, and should, be incorporated into a teacher's evaluation.

A good teacher evaluation system should also include feedback from students. Now, we obviously want to be careful about the kinds of questions we're asking students. A badly designed student survey will reward teacher leniency and punish demanding educators. But a well-designed survey can uncover a great deal about what's going on inside classrooms.

A good teacher evaluation system should also include evidence of student academic progress. Right now that comes in the form of test scores. And there are obvious problems with that approach. But it isn't impossible to imagine a school- or district-based portfolio assessment system in which actual student work could be used to represent the kinds of activities being done in a classroom.

One note that I want to make here, though, is about "fit." There is no one way to be an effective teacher. Sure, there are sources of knowledge that teachers should be able to draw on. But successful teaching is about matching that knowledge with a particular context. A great teacher in one school might be far less great in another. And so, however teacher evaluation is done, it needs to take this concept of fit into account. It needs to make room for all the different kinds of great teachers there are.

Mercedes Schneider: There's a lot of mistrust around teachers being graded by student test scores.

The mistrust around teacher evaluation has been manufactured to make the public believe that schools are full of "bad" teachers.

I trust my principal. In the current climate, I am more concerned about our former TFA superintendent trying to get rid of both me and my principal via test-score-based ratings that shift from year to year.

You are right that one must be careful with surveys of students. Students tend to rate teachers based upon liking the teacher. And in this current atmosphere, a student survey result could easily be handed over to the media—and the media tends toward a sensational headline, not attention to the limitations of a survey result.

There is indeed no one way to be an "effective" teacher. But I can tell you what "effective" is not—a teacher consumed with raising student test scores and who loses sight of the whole, developing child in the process.

Jack Schneider: I don't believe that the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation is an effort to deceive the public and conduct a witch hunt. There just isn't much evidence to support that claim.

Now, you're right that the public has been scared. But that's a byproduct more than it is an intentional outcome. Reformers have had to fight hard to implement new evaluation systems. And that fight has frequently included rhetoric about ineffective teachers being given positive evaluations through a rubber-stamping process.

Have reformers overstated the number of ineffective teachers in our schools? I tend to think so. And I believe that the effects of this have been hugely problematic—shaking public confidence and dispiriting teachers. But that wasn't the intent. The intent was to produce a policy shift—to get new evaluation systems in place.

Was the fight worth it? I think not. The evaluation systems now in place are better in some ways, worse in others. And you're right that overreliance on student test scores has led to an increasingly narrow vision of effective teaching.

So I think there are two big lessons here.

The first is that if people are fighting back, they probably have a good reason. Reformers have fairly consistently dismissed teacher pushback against new evaluation systems as being rooted in self-interest. And that has probably been a factor to some extent. But much of the pushback was also a product of deep knowledge—knowledge about what the consequences of these new systems would be. In education, when most people want what's best for kids, it generally doesn't make sense to dismiss an entire group of stakeholders.

The second lesson is that unintended consequences matter. Education is an ecosystem, and any shift in one area is going to produce consequences elsewhere. Some of those can't be foreseen at all. But many can. And anyone working to produce change needs to think long and hard about all of the unintended consequences that might flow from a particular shift. Because, ultimately, those unintended consequences may constitute your most lasting legacy. Whatever your original intent.

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