Which school do you want to support?
Most of the time, teachers substantially work alone.
In many schools and districts, feedback on their performance is a check-box exercise: the principal or a designated evaluator shows up with a clipboard, watches for a few minutes from the back of the room, makes a few marks on a form, and leaves.
More extensive observation is almost always a reflection of trouble, and may be designed to put pressure on the teacher to improve, or to quit. Some teacher contracts limit the number of times a principal may observe a teacher, or set rules that require the principal to provide advance notice for observation. Unless the school has a strong Professional Learning Community it is normal for teachers to respond negatively to being evaluated. There is a subtle difference between evaluation of teachers and evaluation for teachers.
In 2009, the New Teacher Project criticized this perfunctory process in a widely-read report titled “The Widget Effect.” The report argues that “school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives.” Teachers unions, in turn, criticized the Widget Effect approach for placing too much reliance on the judgment of the school principal, or on over-interpretation of student test scores.
In California, districts are not required to consider student test scores when evaluating teachers.
In 2015, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a detailed report comparing teacher evaluation practices and policies across the US states. Only five states exclude evidence of student achievement from a teacher's evaluation. California is one of the five.
In California, teacher evaluation is often seen as punitive. Extensive observation and evaluation is costly, so it is rare — and generally seen as a signal of trouble.
Students Matter, an education advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in 2015 (Doe v. Antioch et. al.) to argue that school districts are compelled under existing California law (the Stull Act) to evaluate teachers in a way that includes student achievement data. In 2016 Superior Court judge Barry Goode ruled that the Stull Act is not specific; it leaves the manner and consequences of evaluation up to school districts.
An alternative approach, called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) supports principals in some California districts. In this system, districts invest in more frequent observation and evaluation, and try to make it beneficial evaluation for teachers being observed. Underperforming teachers are assigned a coach and evaluated by a teacher panel. There is some evidence that this approach is effective in raising teacher performance. It also may be helpful in “coaching out” some teachers who might do better in a different line of work. If managed carefully, PAR can help provide the required documentation to support a formal dismissal when called for. Critics of PAR express concern that it can have the opposite effect, creating hurdles and obstacles to dealing with performance issues in a clear, effective way.
In California, few districts have implemented PAR or other systems of constructive evaluation for teachers in part because they cost money. When it's time to negotiate a contract, most teacher unions have preferred to advocate for education dollars to go toward salaries rather than support for evaluations, which it is easy to imagine being used punitively.
Of course, the people in a school who are best-positioned to know a teacher's strengths and weaknesses are the ones carrying backpacks: the students. In seven states, student surveys are a required element of teacher evaluations according to the 2015 NCTQ report. Many schools and districts are experimenting with student feedback in the search for alternatives to test scores as a way to understand teacher strengths and weaknesses. The 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, uses a version of the Tripod survey (see image below) to gather student feedback. Her version of the survey also includes space for students to write their own response.
Teachers can "opt out" of being evaluated by students.
In 2010 the California Association of Student Councils (CASC), a statewide organization of student leaders, argued that evaluation for teachers should include feedback from students. The student organization enthusiastically advocated for legislation to facilitate student involvement in teacher evaluation and celebrated passage of SB1422, which appeared to pave the way. No funding was provided for such evaluations, however, and student participation in teacher feedback remains rare. Ironically, the amended legislation that eventually passed appears to prohibit districts from making student evaluations a required practice: instead, it guarantees each teacher an unlimited option to opt out. This is a good example of how advocacy can backfire.
Another alternative proposed but not yet tried (readers, please add a comment if you know otherwise) is for higher-grade teachers to evaluate lower-grade teachers based on the preparedness and work of the students they teach.
The demand for meaningful teacher evaluation systems gained urgency in the great recession. When the budget requires laying off teachers, who should be the first to go?
The lack of effective systems of evaluation for teachers made it difficult for school leaders to argue effectively that they should be able to use judgment in who should go and who should stay. Professor Eric Hanushek, who strenuously promotes the idea of more judgment in teacher retention, argues that targeted layoffs should be a key strategy for school improvement. He says, "If you eliminate the bottom five percent of teachers in terms of effectiveness, or if you replaced five to eight percent of the worst teachers with an average teacher, U.S. achievement would rise to somewhere between Canada and Finland. A small number of teachers has a really big impact on the achievement of kids."
A 2013 PACE/Rossier survey of California voters found significant popular support for this idea: "when asked what would have the most positive impact on public schools, the top answer was "removing bad teachers from the classroom" (43 percent), followed by "more involvement from parents" (33 percent), and "more money for school districts and schools" (25 percent)." Part of what makes this idea difficult is that it implies certainty about who, exactly, falls in that list of worst teachers. Test scores are generally lowest in places where poverty is greatest, and it can be challenging to untangle effectiveness from circumstance.
"Value added" analysis attempts to isolate the difference that a teacher makes in students' success, distinct from other influences. Value-added analysis statistically examines whether students are scoring as expected, given their circumstances, or differently. Over time, if a teacher's students tend to come out of their classes with more improvement in their scores than the model predicts, the teacher might be doing something worth celebrating. Of course, the reverse is also true.
Surveys of voters, parents and teachers tend to agree that the system is failing to take action when teachers are ineffective; inaction on this issue became one of the core arguments in the 2014 case Vergara vs. California.
How can anyone become better at their work in the absence of meaningful feedback?
Teacher evaluation should be about much more than dismissal decisions. After all, how can anyone become better at their work in the absence of meaningful feedback? Greatness By Design, a California task force report on how to support outstanding teachers, stresses that educators be evaluated against professional standards and that evaluation be informed by data from a variety of sources, including measures of educator practice and student learning and growth.
Teachers don't necessarily reject evaluation if it helps them improve. This conclusion has been echoed by large-scale surveys of teachers by the Gates Foundation, which in 2009 began the MET project, an effort to develop useful evaluation models for teachers. In the video below from TED Talks Education with John Legend, Bill Gates argues for significant investment support of teacher development.
One evaluation method that the MET research found to be particularly valid was student surveys.
Many pioneering schools and districts took inspiration from Charlotte Danielson's Professional Practice framework, which defines a rubric for evaluating and coaching teachers in order to make evaluations more consistent and focused.
Perhaps the most thoroughly developed, tested, respected (and also misused) system for teacher evaluation and improvement is Washington, D.C.'s IMPACT program. It has been in use and under development for over a decade. Partly because evaluations are connected to bonuses, the system has undergone intense scrutiny, revision and replication. If your district wants to consider an evaluation system for teachers, deeply understanding the IMPACT program is essential.
As testing has become an important component of school management and accountability, student test results have become a correspondingly important component of teacher evaluation in most states. The topic continues to be a subject of debate in California.
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