The topic of faculty evaluation has been front-and-center as a result of President Obama’s Race-to-the-Top initiative. Many states, which submitted RT3 grants and had them approved, had to commit to improving their framework for faculty evaluation. In most cases, new state frameworks involve linking a teacher’s evaluation to their students’ test score data. There are teachers’ unions and education gurus who are pushing back; asking is this just one more misguided reform effort on the part of policy makers. While there are certainly supporters of using student achievement data to evaluate teachers, much of what I read shows that educators firmly believe that student achievement data, while important, is only one of many factors that speak to how well a teacher functions in a classroom.
Jon Saphier, in his book The Skillful Teacher, writes: “teaching is one of the most complex human endeavors imaginable.” (page 3). If you have every tried to effectively engage 20 2nd graders for 50 minutes, you would fully appreciate how much it demands from a teachers emotional bank account. This work requires patience, planning, orchestration, creativity, spontaneity, and much more. So it is through the lens of the teacher that I eagerly read through the following articles in Educational Leaderships’ recent edition, Teacher Evaluation: What’s Fair? What’s Effective? Let me share a summary of what I read and learned about teacher evaluation through this exercise. By the way, I would definitely encourage educators to read these articles.
The Evaluation of My Dreams, by Carol Ann Tomlinson
This was the most interesting article in the group from my perspective. If you have heard Carol Ann Tomlinson speak you know that she is intelligent, experienced, and eloquent in her understanding of the teaching profession. In her dreams, this is what she wants from a good evaluation system:
- Communicate a vision of the potential power of my teaching.
- Mentor me
- Watch me work often so that you have a multidimensional sense of both what I’m doing and how I’m doing
Ideal feedback for her has these qualities:
- Communicate clearly and respectfully
- Call my strengths to my attention and help me build on them
- Point out ways for me to continue to build on my strengths
- Be descriptive and specific
- Provide feedback that is personalized to me
- Deliver formative feedback for support and growth before any summative feedback
- Acknowledge my progress when it is merited
If educational leaders are to assess their teachers’ work, she challenges us to role model the meaning of assessment, which comes from the Latin root meaning to “sit beside.”
Fine-Tuning Teacher Evaluation, by Kim Marshall
Kim Marshall, the author of Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, is an experienced principal who has thought deeply about how to design a teacher evaluation system so that it is efficient and works for all parties. He believes that evaluations need to be based on more than 1-2 classroom observations followed by a summative report. In fact, he has developed a model he calls, mini-observations, 10-15 unannounced classroom visits by the same administrator. Each observation is followed by a timely face-to-face coaching conversation with the teacher. Write-ups are brief and specific. By seeing many classes over an extended period of time, Marshall believes the observer develops a richer understanding of how the teacher works.
He writes in his article, “Standardized tests are not designed to evaluate teachers.” (page 51) So he is very concerned about the use of student achievement results on high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers. If we continue down this road, fear of negative consequences from a bad evaluation could lead teachers to spend too much time on test prep. We certainly know that this type of teaching will not prepare students to develop skills needed for the 21st Century workplace. He goes on to write about other concerns he has if we rely to heavily on student achievement results to evaluate teachers. Marshall advocates that evaluation systems contain frequent classroom observations, as well as student input to inform teachers about the success of their efforts.
Keeping Improvement in Mind, by Paul Mielke and Tony Frontier
In this article, the authors share their perspective that high-stakes teacher evaluations are infrequent events that take the focus away from the day-to-day teaching that is so valuable to student learning. In addition, they point out that the evidence is sketchy as to whether the feedback teachers receive in these evaluations actually works towards improving instruction. They write:
“The most effective supervision and evaluation systems empower teachers to accurately assess their own practice and self-diagnose areas for growth.”
They advocate using one of the comprehensive teaching frameworks, such as Marzano’s Art and Science of Teaching, or Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. They believe these frameworks are good starting points for teachers to become reflective about their own practice.
Another point they raise that I find particularly compelling is that because teaching is so complex (see the quote from Jon Saphier), requiring significant expertise, the supervision and evaluation system should be orchestrated by administrators who have an equally high level of expertise. In addition, they make the clear point that expertise does not come easy, it requires hard work, dedication and lots of intentional practice.
They end their article with this statement:
“Three days of high-stakes testing of student achievement does not improve student learning, and three days of high-stakes evaluation does not improve teacher performance.”
I think they have that right. Hence, another good reason to consider adopting the approach that Kim Marshall suggests.
The Two Purposes of Teacher Evaluation, by Robert Marzano
Robert Marzano begins his article with the following statement:
“An evaluation system that fosters teacher learning will differ from one whose aim is to measure teacher competence.”
The fear of course is that RT3 initiatives, value-added teacher evaluations, and performance-based pay are directed more at measuring teacher competence and not focused on teacher development. Rewarding “good teaching” does very little to develop the teacher as learner. Marzano points out that measuring teachers is different from nurturing their development. The later is more respectful of the fact that teaching is a complex human endeavor that requires development. When Marzano surveyed 3,000 teachers he found that the vast majority were interested in evaluations that fostered their development. So why are our politicians and educational bureaucrats not listening to what teachers need and want?
Marzano is clearly supporting the framework embodied in his book, The Art and Science of Teaching, which is 41 strategies in three separate domains. He states that these 41 strategies “represent the diversity of strategies that a comprehensive model of teacher evaluation should include.”
In his article, Marzano points out that of his 41 categories, only 15 need to be used if you want to measure teacher competency, but if you want to develop good teachers over time all 41 categories speak to what it means to be an effective classroom teacher. He also pushes the point that any system used to develop teachers needs a clear roadmap or rubric that helps teacher self-evaluation if you will. Finally, he points out that any system designed to support teacher development has to reward teacher growth.
“If the emphasis is on teacher development, the model needs to be both comprehensive and specific and focus on the teacher’s growth in various instructional strategies.”
Observing Classroom Practice, by Charlotte Danielson
I really enjoyed the beginning of this article that suggests the observer (principal) failed to understand that a teacher facilitating a student-centered classroom is teaching. Danielson argues that classroom observation is an instrumental part of any good teacher evaluation system. She points out that if classroom practice is deficit, principals can only understand the challenges by witnessing the instruction and guiding improvement in collaboration with other instructional leaders.
“High levels of teacher performance on the instructional framework as a whole should predict high levels of student learning.”
Danielson is also in the position of promoting her Framework for Teaching as a guide that schools could use to support their evaluation system. Whether it is the Danielson, Marzano or some other framework, it is clear from these experts that every school must adopt a framework and an instructional rubric they use to evaluate good teaching.
In her article, Danielson makes a strong case that observers must be formally trained on how to carry out effective classroom observations with rubrics that they fully understand.
“They (observers) need training, and possibly an assessment of their skills, to ensure they can conduct these observations with fidelity.”
The question we should be asking in our schools: Is the system for carrying out effective classroom observations robust and based on a well-defined framework supported by a specific rubric for what good teaching looks like?
How to Use Value-Added Measures Right, by Matthew Di Carlo
Di Carlo starts out with a bold statement that is supported by his understanding of the literature.
“But despite the confidence on both sides of the argument, there is virtually no empirical evidence as to whether using value-added or other growth models–the types of models being used vary from state to state–in high-stakes evaluations can improve teacher performance or student outcomes.”
So all we are doing by incorporating value-added data on student achievement into teacher evaluations is measuring the teacher. We are doing very little to develop a system that helps teacher grow in their profession or helps students learn more effectively. So if value-added data is unreliable and not highly valid, then why are we so fixated on using it? The answer seems to lie in the world of accountability. The problem is that a system that hinges merely on accountability, and does like to support capacity building, will fail to bring about significant change.
Another interesting point Di Carlo discusses is that value-added data is based solely on standardized tests, which we know is not a reliable measure of a student’s potential to learn and perform on real world tasks. Therefore, why would we want to rely on these indicators to measure teacher quality. Seems absurd!
Of course, Di Carlo points out that all measures could be criticized for their inability to directly align to specific outcomes. The challenge for educators is to create a system that does not rely on one indicator. We should build into our teacher supervision and evaluation models, a variety of indicators that look at the question of teacher quality through different lens.
Di Carlo offers four research-based recommendations for us to consider.
- avoid mandating universally high weights for value-added measures. He sees a place for VAM but this indicator should not be weighted high. He suggests between 10-20%.
- pay attention to all components of an evaluation. Collect data from different stakeholders over a wide time span.
- don’t ignore the errors inherent in VAM. Address them directly.
- continually monitor results and evaluate the evaluations.
“Test-based teacher evaluations are probably the most controversial issue in education today.”
With many states facing budget cuts in education, let’s not permit the lack of resources to cause us to accept the least common denominator, allowing VAM to dominate a teacher’s evaluation because we don’t have the resources or the will to design a system that is more robust, fair, reliable and enduring.
The MET Project: The Wrong $45 Million Question, by Rachael Gabriel and Richard Allington
In this article, Gabriel and Allington address the question of whether the Gates Foundation has fulfilled their purpose by investing $45 million dollars in the MET project. The MET project was a multi-year project that was interested in identifying criteria for effective teaching, archiving the observations of effective teaching, and assisting in the development of better teaching. The authors quote Bill and Melinda Gates as writing this in a WSJ editorial in 2011:
“It may surprise you–it was certainly surprising to us–but the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching.”
I find that quote to be highly offensive coming from two people who are not educators. First, have they ever read the following books:
- The Skillful Teacher by Jon Saphier
- The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer
- The Art and Science of Teaching by Robert Marzano
If they had, they would realize their statement is very misinformed. These are only three of dozens of books by dozens of educators who demonstrate a deep knowledge of what it means to be an effective teacher. In addition, there are countless educators across the country who can tell you very clearly who it means and looks like to be an effective teacher. So my thoughts are this, the MET project got off on the wrong foot, asking the wrong question. This is Gabriel and Allington’s point as well. Like the “small school” project, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are wasting their dollars going down misguided paths.
I have written numerous blog articles about what goes into good teaching. While there is nothing original in these posts, nor did I spend $45 million dollars to come up with these ideas, I do think they provide a context for what good teaching is about. Most of my thinking about good teaching comes from reading educators who have come to understand it and witnessing good teaching in action.
Gabriel and Allington ask a great question:
“Are students experiencing the education we hope for them? How do we know and how can we help?”
We certainly won’t get answers to these questions by judging teachers by their students’ test scores, which is a primary indicator used in the MET study to identify good teaching. They look at VAM but have failed to appreciate that this measure is inadequate when it comes to identifying excellence in a profession that is highly relational. Good teachers should not be merely identified by the test scores of their students. In the most successful schools in this country, our independent schools, teachers are not measured test scores. In fact, the Lakeside Academy in Seattle, the school that Bill Gates attended and has donated millions of dollars to, would not dream of measuring its 3rd grade teachers by the high-stakes test scores its students receive?
The authors ask us to ponder five questions.
- Do evaluation tools inspire responsive teaching or defensive conformity?
- Do evaluation tools reflect our goals for public education?
- Do evaluation tools encourage teachers to use text in meaningful ways?
- Do evaluation tools spark meaningful conversations with teachers?
- Do evaluation tools promote valuable educational experiences?
These are the right five questions to be asking. Had the Gates Foundation started with these five questions maybe their $45 million investment would have produced a more enduring impact. It certainly would have funded research that would lead to a richer and more complex understanding of why Jon Saphier refers to teaching as “one of the most complex human endeavors imaginable.”
I strongly believe that we cannot create a system for evaluating teachers that does not have their voice and choice built directly into the system. My experience with teacher evaluations is that teachers want to know that their administrators intimately understand who they are and what they do in the classroom, that the principal has the credibility to give them meaningful feedback on their teaching, that we care about what they think about their teaching, and that they are respected in the process. This isn’t so much to ask. Unfortunately, we are creating systems from on HIGH, often without the voices of teachers at the table, that are legislating what teachers need to do to be considered effective. But we don’t ask them. Shame on us!
I think Carol Ann Tomlinson hits the nail on the head with her article, The Evaluation of My Dreams. There are no gimmicks, just real human emotions that are tied to what teachers really hope for when their supervision steps into their world.