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Quitting the Evaluation Frenzy: Growing Teacher Quality Instead

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Let's spend less energy measuring teachers, and more energy helping teachers improve. There is an entire movement championed by the U.S. Department of Education, the Gates foundation, and others to make robust teacher evaluation pervasive. Albeit an important cause, a principal function of teacher evaluations is to identify and release the lowest performing teachers from the profession. For all of the upheaval these evaluations are causing in places like New York, and New Jersey, where incoming evaluation systems are being hotly debated, evaluations do not prove to be very effective tools for teacher improvement.

When looking at an evaluation instrument the first thing you might notice is how dense and unwieldy it is. For instance, the New York City Teacher Evaluation Instrument, not unlike most, spans 50 pages, including over 100 individual boxes of text for categorizing teachers along a range from ineffective to highly effective. It is BEASTLY. In each of those 128 text boxes are descriptions of teaching practice, not suggestions for improvement. Knowing that a teacher falls into the category of  "developing" for the standard of "Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport" tells the instructor little about the steps needed to perform better at that standard. It provides a description of what "developing teacher practice looks like," i.e. teacher unsuccessfully "attempts to make connections with individual students" and it describes "highly effective" performance within that same standard, even providing examples of what student behaviors reflect a high rating. Nonetheless, the evaluation itself is void of suggestions or actions that teachers can execute to move from a lower rating to a higher rating. That is why policy expert Stephen Fink posits that "rating performance (no matter how accurately) does not guarantee the improvement of performance. No logic chain supports that argument."  

Professional development on the other hand, can be a bonafide teacher-improvement tool. With it, teachers can learn exactly how to implement the specific strategies of positive narration, cold calling, and a strong presence as ways to move from "developing" to "highly effective" on an evaluation rubric, for instance.The education landscape could see larger returns from heavy investment in the improvement of all teachers, as opposed to the effort to fire the bottom 10 percent of that same workforce, a salient goal of the teacher evaluation movement. Some might scoff at that idea, resigning their hopes for teacher improvement because of a history of failure but certain models of professional development have a chance to foster real increases in teacher quality.

Coupling teacher evaluation with professional development

Even though evaluations do not lay the actionable steps for teacher improvement, they could serve as the starting block for vigorous professional development efforts. For instance, knowing that a teacher has been identified as ineffective in the area of student engagement could help an instructional coach narrow focus and determine where coaching should begin. Moreover, an ineffective rating within the "Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport" standard could trigger a standard menu of specific teaching strategies known to correlate with improvement on that standard. What if there were several pedagogies for each evaluation standard that teachers could implement to move from ineffective to highly effective? Let's boil teacher improvement down to a science, throwing the same amount of resources, time, and effort behind that tool as we do teacher evaluations. My venture EdConnective is one attempt at doing so.

Unfortunately, the rules governing some current evaluation systems, such as in Washington, D.C., explicitly forbid the use of teacher evaluations to aid in teacher improvement efforts. A report on D.C.'s teacher evaluation system states that,"according to the union contract, the master educators [evaluators] may not share evaluations with instructional coaches, the teachers who work with their peers to help them improve their craft." Even the multi-year Measures of Effective Teaching study spearheaded by the Gates foundation, in which  numerous researchers evaluated and observed 3,000 teachers, prohibited using the data collected for teacher improvement. If we think of teachers as plants, evaluations are then just the rulers that determine height, whereas professional development is the water and sunlight that helps those plants grow. To maximize gains in teacher quality, folks have to recognize that evaluation is limited mostly to identification whereas professional development and coaching are the tools of improvement. There is great value add to be won through the merger of the two tools, but doing so will require significant effort.

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