Teacher evaluation is a complex process. It is a series of activities and actions that are interconnected and ultimately related to a specific purpose. Day to day, teachers deal with complex problems and from this, they should be evaluated as professionals which means that their standards should be developed by their peers and their evaluation in turn focus on the degree in which they solve professional problems. While not always true, the emphasis of these evaluations should be on their ability to teach and not them as sole individuals, while taking into consideration the involvement of the overall educational process.
The general rule of thumb is that the evaluation process typically involves preparation, observation, data collecting, reporting and most importantly, follow-up. Though each of these serves a specific purpose throughout the overall evaluation process, when missing just one, an ineffective evaluation systems being to resonate. Over time, ineffective teacher evaluation systems have become more costly than effective overall strategies. In most cases, teacher evaluation programs contain inferior material because they neither improve a teacher’s instructional skill, nor do they permit the dismissal of incompetent teachers. These points bring into clear perspective the need for effective teacher evaluation policies, and the need for boards and administrators to examine these practices with a view to improve learning opportunities across different situations.
Back in 2001, Patricia Hopkins became superintendent of the Five Town CSD and Maine School Administrative District #28 in Camden & Rockport with one of her first tasks being to review summative evaluations of all the teachers in the two districts. What she discovered troubled her, but yet this did not surprise her at the same time. As she read through the evaluations, she found that many were full of “valentines” – her word for vague, meaningless praise – and largely deprived of constructive criticism or concrete feedback. Hopkins believed that teacher evaluation held great potential to improve instruction, so she set out to “eliminate the valentines” by strengthening the culture and structures supporting teacher evaluation in district schools (Kane, Taylor, Tyler, & Wooten, 2010).
In recent years, the spotlight on teacher evaluation has intensified. For myself, this was something of a topic that I initially gave little to no accountability towards until viewing “Waiting For Superman” this semester. With this inside look into an exhaustive review of public education with it’s methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems, now more than ever is the overall review of teacher’s performance a must in our academic communities. With dissecting that the teacher’s effect on student learning and achievement, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers are beginning to call for boosting the judgment and quality of a teacher’s evaluation. From this, we are starting to see the track record for evaluation and how the increasing consensus that teacher evaluation could play an important part in improving teaching and learning.
During the last wave of efforts to strengthen teacher evaluation back in the 1980s, most initiatives died on the spot. This time around, however, there may be cause for more optimism. Key changes in the education world may make it easier for broad-scale improvement efforts to take hold. Moreover, some schools and districts, like those Hopkins leads, have already taken steps to more tightly link teacher evaluation with instructional improvement and increased student learning, along with implementing real consequences for those who perform superbly – and for other teachers who perform poorly.
Time and again, analyses of summative evaluation ratings of teacher’s show that the vast majority of teachers in any school, district, or state are rated above – sometimes well above – average (Donaldson, 2009). Although it is possible that all teachers are above average in some schools, there is generally more variation in teacher effectiveness within schools than between them. Thus, any school – low performing or high performing, wealthy suburban or under resourced urban – is likely to employ more underperforming teachers than its evaluation ratings suggest (Hanushek, Kain, O’Brien, & Rivkin, 2005). In fact, both principals and teachers believe that teachers are less effective than ratings indicate which ultimately leads to inflated ratings of teachers and this reflects the following problems that seriously limit the extent to which evaluation could improve instruction and achievement.
Poor Evaluation Instruments: Systems have tend to emphasize what can be measured, not necessarily what matters. In turn, evaluation instruments have traditionally required evaluators to look for things that they can easily be checked off (such as the neatness of bulletin boards), but that may not indicate high-quality instruction.
Limited District Guidance: Districts typically give little direction regarding what evaluators should look for. Instead of providing guidelines or rubrics that detail the substance of evaluations, districts are more likely to set out time lines and explain processes (Koppich & Showalter, 2008).
Lack of Evaluator Time: Evaluators, usually school administrators, report having insufficient time to conduct thorough and accurate evaluations. As the reporting requirements for schools have increased, evaluator’s time has become even scarcer.
Lack of Evaluator Skill: Evaluators often lack specific knowledge about the content areas in which they evaluate teachers, especially at the secondary level. Moreover, professional development for evaluators is not frequent or comprehensive.
Lack of Evaluator Moral Fiber: Principals are not always held accountable for conducting rigorous evaluations. A “culture of nice” pervades schools, suppressing critical feedback and encouraging principals to rate all teachers above average.
Absence of High-Quality Feedback for Teachers: Even though teachers express a strong desire for more concrete, detailed feedback, evaluators generally do not provide it after their observations (New Teacher Project, 2009).
Few Consequences Attached to Evaluation: Because there is little variation in the teachers summative evaluation ratings, teachers who teach exceptionally well cannot be identified or rewarded. At the same time it’s difficult to identify, if needed, those who struggle (New Teacher Project, 2009).
Despite the deep, longstanding roots of these problems, the challenges might be easier to overcome than they appear. Currently, we know more about the links between teaching and learning than at any time in the past (Donovan & Pellegrino, 2003). We know, for example, that explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle is a key component of effective reading instruction (National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). This knowledge enables evaluators to determine whether such instruction is occurring. In addition, the teacher workforce is undergoing a massive transition as baby boomers retire and individuals in their 20’s & 30’s enter teaching. There is some indication that new teachers today differ from the retiring generation (Johnson & Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, 2004). Surveys suggest that they are more open to differential recognition and rewards than are their retiring counterparts. Finally, teachers unions, long perceived as a major barrier to the improvement of teacher evaluation, have shown an increasing openness to collaborating with districts to improve the appraisal of teachers (Johnson, Donaldson, Munger, Papay, & Qazilbash, 2009; Weingarten, 2010).
Another sign of hope is in the districts that are already making strides and progressing towards tightening the link between teacher evaluation and improved instruction and – potentially – achievement. While dissecting the above situation, along with two other districts, I was able to obtain different a better understanding on different steps taken toward mitigating some of the current problems in teacher evaluation. These approaches represent a new direction in evaluation that, if it spreads, can transform teaching and learning.
In Ohio, Cincinnati’s Teacher Evaluation System exerts an influence on instruction and potential stronghold on student achievement (Kane, Taylor, Tyler, & Wooten, 2010). This evaluation system grew out of a 1997 collective bargaining agreement between the Cincinnati Board of Education and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. Through careful study and advice from experts in research and practice, they were able to develop a program for its 58 schools and approximately 2,200 teachers that provides a clear evaluation system and structure that mitigates some of the common problems with teacher evaluation.
Using Charlotte Danielson’s (2007) framework as a guide, Cincinnati has built its evaluation criteria on 16 standards that are prominent within four specific domains: (1) Planning and Preparing for Student Learning, (2) Creating an Environment for Student Learning, (3) Teaching for Student Learning, and (4) Professionalism. Overall, this system devotes considerable time and resources to providing professional development on these standards.
From this, teachers in the district can apply for a three-year term as an evaluator or a consulting teacher. Through this process, teacher evaluators are obligated to conduct three observations, while administrators conduct one of the tenured teachers’ four formal observations during the comprehensive evaluation cycle, which tenured teachers undergo every five years. Two of the observations are announced, and at least two are followed by post-observation conferences with evaluators. New teachers and struggling veterans are evaluated under a different, but related system. The district’s Peer Assistance and Evaluation Program assigns consulting teachers to these teachers; these consulting teachers usually also serve as evaluators for other teachers, but they evaluate new or struggling teachers more frequently.
This system reduces the time problem many evaluators face by dividing evaluation responsibilities between teachers and administrators. Each full-time evaluator typically has a caseload of 18–25 teachers. With them focused on evaluating and assisting their peers, these individuals have the time to conduct high-quality evaluations and provide useful feedback to teachers. New consulting teachers and teacher evaluators receive 10–11 days of training before starting their work, where as continuing evaluators receive five days of training each summer. Before their first term, all evaluators and consulting teachers must pass an evaluator certification test that requires them to assess instruction using the system’s rubrics and demonstrate their reliability as raters. Over the course of the school year, consulting teachers and evaluators receive two hours of training every other week to review evaluation standards and calibrate scoring. After three years in their role, consulting teachers and teacher evaluators return to full-time teaching positions, which keep their knowledge of teaching and learning current.
Looking at a different approach, some charter schools have also attempted to make teacher evaluation a more powerful tool for instructional improvement. One charter management organization in the northern United States, a successful network of 15 urban schools serving high percentages of low-income and minority children, has done so by deemphasizing formal summative evaluations and focusing instead on ongoing informal evaluation and feedback (Donaldson & Peske, 2010). In this organization, teachers receive one-on-one and small-group coaching from administrators on a weekly or biweekly basis, as well as a midyear summative evaluation. The coaching is differentiated according to the teachers needs and aimed at developing teacher’s skills over time. For the summative appraisal, evaluators and teachers complete a same six-page appraisal form that focuses on the organization’s “Aspects of Instruction”, which covers such approaches as differentiation and checking for understanding.
Comments on the appraisal do not simply reflect a short period of formal observation, as those of some evaluation systems do. Instead, the document prompts both the teacher and evaluator to reflect on all the work the teacher has done so far for that academic year. Thus, evaluators may draw on all their observations of the teacher—inside or outside the classroom, brief or sustained. This includes not only classroom instruction but also non-instructional contributions to teams and committees they hold responsibility towards, along with the school as a whole. With all of this taken into accountability, teachers reported spending three to five hours preparing these documents and another 90–180 minutes debriefing with their evaluator (Donaldson & Peske, 2010).
With having generally more flexibility than traditional public school, the charter organization enables administrators to spend considerable time observing, evaluating, and coaching teachers by keeping the teacher to evaluator ratio quite low – approximately six teachers to one administrator. The organization has also strategically aligned personnel to handle certain administrative tasks so that principals can focus on instruction. Furthermore, an operations team handles facilities management, budgeting, certification, and ordering. In turn, a dean of students manages student behavior challenges, an intervention coordinator organizes school wide data and testing, and in some cases, an executive assistant coordinates activities with teachers and students and fills in where extra help is needed.
The organization lives by the principle that, as one teacher noted, “Feedback is a gift.” A key part of professional development focuses on training teachers and leaders to have difficult conversations, which sometimes occurs during the evaluation of debriefs. One principal explained that her school has adopted specific norms such as “staying on your side of the net and not stepping over and making claims on the other person” that helps to depersonalize potential disagreements. Another principal said that in the process of hiring teachers, he deliberately gives them critical feedback on their demonstration lesson to see how they handle constructive criticism (Donaldson & Peske, 2010). Evaluators receive training in how to deliver feedback in such a way that their suggestions will be implemented. They learn to give concrete and specific feedback that teachers can immediately respond to. Evaluation and coaching sessions deliberately focus on one or two major issues a teacher needs to work on and are anchored in student data, often the organization’s benchmark assessments. This ultimately narrows the focus on changes that teachers need to make to be effective.
Finally, the Five Town CSD and Maine School Administrative District #28, under Patricia Hopkins’s guidance, have also strengthened their evaluation systems (Kane, Taylor, Tyler, & Wooten, 2010). Hopkins notes, “I have seen a shift. People aren’t just saying you’re doing great. They’re posing questions and making recommendations to help inform teacher’s efforts to improve instruction.”
This shift has come about in large part as a result of the district’s efforts to solve one typical problem of evaluation systems – lack of evaluator will. Early on, Hopkins decided to increase evaluator’s accountability for completing high-quality assessments. First, she posted a calendar in her office showing the names and due dates of all teacher evaluations throughout the district. This calendar enabled her to keep track of and follow up with evaluators during the school year. Administrators must conduct at least two observations each year for first and second-year teachers and one every third year for teachers on a continuing contract. The evaluations themselves are based on both these observations and such factors as “promptness and accuracy of reports” and “evidence of professional growth.” With this in place, administrators in turn meet with teachers before and after the observations and evaluations to help clarify the outcomes. Second, Hopkins and the assistant superintendent began to informally observe all first and second-year teachers in the district. This practice of providing another set of eyes helps school-based administrators to be more critical. In some cases, Hopkins said, the informal observation led to additional observations of teachers and more in-depth conversations with administrators.
Lastly, Hopkins has required principals to share their draft evaluation reports with assistant principals and vice versa before the post observation conference with the teacher. This sharing has enabled administrators to clarify their expectations, maintain consistency with one another, and ensure that their commendations and recommendations for improvement are appropriate.