I was intrigued by the article that appeared in Education Week, Grade Inflation Seen in Evaluations of Teachers, Regardless of System (June 10, 2009, page 6). Is it true that nearly all teachers are “deemed above average.” What does it mean to be above average as a teacher and how do we know when we see above average teaching? As lay folks, do we rely on our experiences as students being in the classroom of someone who had significant impact on us. Could we clearly articulate what it was about that teacher that made us stand up and notice? As educators, do we rely on a set of measureable standards or benchmarks for best practice that we consistently and expertly apply in our observation of good teaching? It strikes me the Ed Week article is raising some interesting questions about the validity of what we do as educators (administrators) to measure good teaching.
The article points out that Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, thinks “this is a cultural problem, a problem of not having a commitment to recognizing key differences in performance.” In addition, Mr. Daly is referenced as saying, “because distinctions in effectiveness aren’t formally documented, districts are missing out on opportunities to link the evaluation systems to professional-development tools, to decisions for granting tenure, and to bonuses or career-ladder initiatives.” I see his point, but wonder if there aren’t many more layers to this issue, what good teaching looks like and how to measure or observe it, than to link faculty evaluation systems to tools, tenure, and bonuses.
As I have talked with teachers throughout my career, I am struck that the majority believe that their school’s evaluation systems have been inadequate in giving them deep and meaningful feedback into their teaching practice. Many of them will point out that they have never been formally observed or evaluated. What does that mean or say about how ability to manage evaluation models or systems?
In the article, Stephen Sawchuk writes, “The evaluations also appear to have failed as a method for offering professional development tailored to individual teacher’s needs.” It goes on to mention that “73% of teachers who were polled said their evaluations did not identify an area for development.” It is my belief that the reasons for this shortfall in most evaluation systems is: (1) most administrators, through no fault of their own, are not sufficiently trained to observe, evaluate, and supervise teachers; (2) most schools do not have evaluation systems that are manageable and easily implemented; and (3) most evaluations systems are not designed to help teachers reflect on their teaching, identify areas or goals for professional growth, and hold them accountable for achieving these goals. While the article addresses this issue from the perspective of public education, the challenges are identical in the independent, private, and charter school worlds.
In the field of education, on the learning side of the aisle, we create an elaborate system of standards and an equally elaborate set of assessments linked to these standards. Talented people expend a great deal of energy creating and administering these systems. As teachers, we evaluate students constantly to be sure they are achieving in the classroom. There is a endless stream of information coming from students to teachers that communicates whether mastery is occurring. We espouse the value of a blend of formative and summative assessments as a way to give daily or more long-term feedback students about their learning. Sometimes we use this information to inform our teaching. Given this model, which almost all teachers support, why don’t we apply similarly rigorous strategies to our own evaluation systems. Systems that would be able to distinguish between key differences between ineffective, average, good, and excellent teachers. Systems that would have clear feedback loops and hold school leaders accountable for helping teachers to move from average to good or good to excellent.
As I pointed out, most administrators (principals and department heads) are not adequately trained to effectively observe teachers and give constructive feedback, both positive and negative. Mr. Sawchuk writes, “Administrators familiar with performance-based evaluation said that even well-designed systems hinge on strong training for evaluators.” In the case study from Tennessee that he refers to in the article, he points out that in the 40,000-student school district there is inconsistency as to how administrators use the tools and system that has been created. “I wish there was some way we could train administrators to be more consistent and bring more fidelity to the process.” (a quote from an assistant principal in the school district)
At The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, I have worked with the Administrative Team and faculty to review, redesign, and implement their evaluation and supervision model. Their work began by engaging the faculty in a conversation about best practices. What does good teaching look like from the eyes of the practitioner? With time, this document was assembled through a consensus building process. From there, it was decided that the evaluation model needed to have five components: (1) a faculty self-evaluation tool; (2) a student feedback process depending upon the age group; (3) peer, colleague, or mentor observation and feedback; (4) principal, department chair, or dean of faculty observation and feedback; and (5) feedback from others (director of athletics if the faculty member is coaching). The faculty member being evaluated will then be part of a “critical friends group (cfg)” of other faculty undergoing evaluation. Faculty in the CFG will process, discuss, and summarize what they have learned about their teaching from feedback in these five areas. The feedback and the peer-to-peer conversation will hopefully help each faculty member become a “reflective teacher.”
The challenges facing The Westminster Schools will be whether this model can be easily and consistently implemented across all divisions and whether the School can afford to invest the time and energy into training administrators and faculty to be good observers and effective communicators of classroom teaching. Finally, will the process set up to help faculty become reflective teachers so that they can become their own agents of change? Are administrators sufficiently trained to supervise faculty as their teaching evolves? Westminster is certainly well on its way and exploring answers to these and other questions.
It strikes me that if schools or school districts invest in faculty becoming agents of change or teacher leaders, there is a greater chance that our evaluation models will lead to average teachers becoming good and good teachers becoming excellent. If we invest in training our administrators to recognize good teaching and give constructive feedback, then we have a greater chance of helping teachers grow. Our goal should be excellent teaching in every classroom. The only variable that has been shown to consistently increase student achievement is for students to have excellent teachers year-in and year-out. If we care about our children’s learning environment, our goal should be nothing less than excellent teachers in every classroom.
Let’s get beyond grade inflation of teacher performance and create and implement systems that assure our students will be taught by the best teachers imaginable.
Center for Teaching