3.9 Evaluate Teachers
Most of the time, teachers substantially work alone. They receive only occasional, minimal feedback about their work. In most schools and districts, this feedback is based on 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.
In most cases, any further observation and evaluation is rare – and similarly perfunctory. 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.
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, have criticized the Widget Effect approach for placing too much reliance on the judgment of the school principal.
The punitive reputation associated with teacher evaluation in California is a reflection of its rarity. Extensive observation and evaluation is almost always a signal of trouble. An alternative approach, called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) supports principals in some California districts. (Poway, a district in Southern California, has used PAR for many years.) In this system, districts invest in more frequent observation and evaluation, and try to make it beneficial to the teacher 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 also 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.
Another alternative proposed but not yet tried (to my knowledge) is for higher-grade teachers to evaluate lower-grade teachers based on the preparedness and work of the students they teach.
Student feedback does not play a role in teacher evaluation. In 2010 the California Association of Student Councils (CASC) argued that teachers should be evaluated using multiple measures, including student evaluation, and successfully endorsed legislation to address student evaluation. No funding was provided for such evaluation programs, however. Ironically, the legislation that eventually passed appears to prohibit districts from requiring student evaluations, instead guaranteeing each teacher an unlimited option to opt out. This is a good example of how advocacy can backfire.
The demand for meaningful teacher evaluation systems gained urgency in the great recession. When the budget requires laying off teachers, which should be the first to go? The lack of effective evaluation systems 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.
In the absence of an effective evaluation system, Stanford professor Eric Hanushek argues that layoffs should be driven by student test score gains as evidence of teacher effectiveness: “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.”
It is unfortunate that urgent discussion about teacher evaluation in California originated with the question of how to cull the worst. For the vast majority of teachers, evaluations can also have a positive aim: helping them become better at their work. After all, how can anyone become better at their work in the absence of meaningful feedback?
Pivot Learning Partners (a Full Circle Fund grant recipient) has been working to shift the emphasis of evaluation from rewards and punishment to professional improvement. The early results are promising: teachers seem to value professional feedback when it isn’t couched in high-stakes terms. This conclusion has been echoed by large-scale surveys of teachers by the Gates Foundation, which in 2009 began a major effort to identify factors that make some teachers more effective than others and help teachers learn from success.
The Race to the Top program brought significantly increased focus to the question of how to evaluate teacher performance. 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. Others have adapted, tweaked and improved on Danielson’s work, and many rubrics can be found online at the National Center on Teaching Quality. Many districts in the above-mentioned North Bay Collaborative felt that Washington, D.C.’s program (called IMPACT) was particularly worthy of study.
As testing has become a more important component of school management, student test results have become an important component of teacher evaluation. Approaches for using such test scores (including “Growth” and “Value Added” assessment) are discussed in the “Success” primers of Ed100.