Friday, July 26, 2013

Bringing Teacher Evaluation Back from the Cliff

Teacher evaluation is a miss in far too many places because of the level of interference it puts in the way of effective teacher observation and the absolutely necessary, formative feedback and professional growth that ought to follow.  I want to lay out some ways observation and evaluation can look if it is done correctly, some reasons why evaluation so often gets in the way, and one strategy that I’ve created - with substantial help from @Blakekonny, whom I first conversed with as part of my Twitter PLN, but was also able to hook up on  the phone to finalize my work - to help increase the amount, timeliness, and specificity of the data my school had from observations.

Teachers’ observation (formative) and evaluation (summative) ought to be a combination of interactions, reflections, and  conversations that lead to the improvement of teachers’ craft and yes, ultimately, improved students’ learning.  The information teachers get about their work ought to come from as many sources as possible and be tracked conveniently so that it can all be juxtaposed.  Picture a collection of data gained through discussions, observations, academic assessments and reviews of the teacher’s body of work that is generated by the students, colleagues, parents, and administrators that inhabit that teacher’s professional world.  Both goals that teachers set for themselves as part of the system in which they’re working and the norms/expectations established by administration ought to serve as guides for the feedback.  It’s a place where items including the wording of essay questions, pacing of curricula, contributions to grade-level meetings, classroom environments, use of technology, proactive family communications, peer support, depth of meeting SMART goals, and the amount of HOTS put to use in a class are all effectively collected and tracked and discussed, and reflected upon.  All of this, by the way, ought to be done with a frequency that reflects teachers’ needs, milestones throughout the year, and yes, some level of seemingly arbitrary regularity for good measure.  

How are we missing the boat with teachers...simply by adhering to our failed philosophy of measuring what we claim is the objective attainment of teaching standards without speaking enough about teachers’ growth.  In today’s climate, with the volumes of research we are now looking to utilize - from Dweck’s work on mindset, Pink’s work on motivation to mastery grading, technology, pbl, etc, etc, etc - we have to know that all teachers are going to be less than perfect with at least some of these things.  It’s a perfect example of too much, too fast, but too bad. While it’s true that the amount of research in our culture is greater than ever and that most of the initiatives’ implementation is being done for the benefit of our students, the system’s put so many things forward at once that we can - if we want to - catch most teachers not doing something well at any given moment.   I hope, by the way, that that’s not what we want to be doing.

To make matters worse, we claim to measure growth against our teacher standards/protocol, which almost always top out with items that are admittedly “aspirational,” meaning that the bar has been set to mark professional habits that turn the S, M, and A of SMART goals into jokes.  I was once told, for example, that my content knowledge didn’t portray the “depth and breadth of expertise” that it should.  When I asked how many texts and by what authors, time periods, and cultures I should know in order to be considered “advanced,” I was told that it’s just something that can be sensed, that there wasn’t a list of any sort, even though the particular class and curriculum being observed was considered thoughtful, thorough and well-organized.  I was told that “everyone needs to be growing at this.”  This is a problem because people are going to be less willing to grow and try if their work will always be considered sub-par; it’s the same reason so many struggling students just drop out.  Could you imagine a classroom teacher not giving A’s to student writing unless it gets accepted for publication by someone outside of the school community or telling students that they’ll only get Cs in physical education unless they get drafted by a college?  Raising the bar, fine.  Having aspirations, perfect.  But they can’t be the foundation for success.  

In my humble opinion, teaching is an imperfect activity.  The best of my own classes and all classes that I’ve observed in my 14yrs have had some level of flaw, something that ought to have been done differently, something that could be improved.  A teacher’s skill, in my opinion, is being able to not only proactively minimize those flaws, but also - and most importantly since there will always be something - recognize and improve upon them afterwards.  The perfect teacher in my model is one who puts accepted best practices to use, is able to recognize what is and is not working well in class and can identify needed next steps to improve his/her teaching and the students’ learning.  What do I do to create the environment in which this is possible?

  1. Clearly identify practices teachers are expected to be implementing

  1. Make sure that these practices either come from sources identified by those people for whom we work and/or are well-researched best solutions to identified needs of the students and/or the school.  There is very little, if any, room for my “pet interests” these days, and a less-is-more mindset helps me keep things off the table.

  1. Provide as much context and support as is initially available and ultimately necessary for teachers to understand the initiative and substantially begin and thrive throughout his/her journey.  

  1. Give and discuss frequent  and specific feedback.

  1. Always repeat observations that don’t go well.  

  1. Work vulnerably, meaning that I model struggling openly

  1. Evaluate teachers on their willingness to consistently come to an understanding and increase facility with expectations.  Nobody’s learning is done, so a teacher who says (s)he has nowhere to grow is my biggest worry.  

  1. Give my observation feedback quickly and then offer time for discussion so that it’s always used formatively.  

  1. Allow the evaluation cycle to include teachers’ own goals.  The “relevant” piece of smart goals keeps this from being scary, and the intrinsic motivator is great for morale, the sustainability of a positive school culture, and as a model for teachers’ work with students.

Keep tuned in, I’m working on a follow-up post that’ll explain how, with the help of @Blakekonny, I put iPads and Google Forms to use to help my team’s efforts with using walk-through observations and Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to improve practice.


  1. I hope we can get more principals with these priorities for teacher evaluation in place. A teacher's understanding of their own development priorities will promote quality development. Unfortunately, too much stress has been placed on the supposed value in data generated by standardized tests and the training of teachers has been in chaining themselves to that process, and training principals in helping them be chained.

    Evals will mean more if they can go in the direction described by you (I think they lean that way in smaller districts where administrators can try to be responsive to the individuals involved).

    Another skill I would like to see admins AND teachers be able to focus on is collaboration and team building. In school and "out in the world" we all know that the most effective teams include people with varied skills (Like The A-Team!). Someone with the most knowledge, other people best at putting it into words/presenting it, other people organizing/scheduling/time-lining it...

    While commanding current research or content in any instructional area is important, and the ability to present and lead students to achievement standards is important, we shouldn't be using test numbers primarily. We should be using that self awareness aspect of developing instructional and assessment practice and a contribution of skill/talent to the whole.

    1. It is unfortunate that so many constraints leave us working on what is possible within the parameters instead of what it desirable for the realities of learning. It may be gradualism, but we have to at least be moving in the better direction. Lately, it's all about the expediency and finger pointing. Thanks for responding.

  2. Great post David. I sent it to Patch to catch up to it later as I'm in Greece. Then as I had my coffee at a cafe I decided to click Text To Speech, so I can have my phone read it to me as I kept my eye on my boys. So basically, your post was read aloud in a cafe in Crete. I'd love to see your follow up post on Google docs and forms. This whole process is going to ride on proper evaluation.

    1. Thanks. Now that my international following is growing... :) Working on piece two, about trying to maximize the amount of useful feedback that can be found in a short amount of time. As you know, everything wrapped into teacher evaluation is a struggle, but I keep focusing on having the best intentions as a starting point. Enjoy the vacation!