Feature                                                    Pages 34-38


Discoveries About New

Teacher Evaluation

A director with McREL shares up-close observations about introducing measures to better assess teachers


Whenever educators discuss new ways to assess professional performance of staff, anxiety levels run high. The talk usually targets the hot buttons. At a meeting I attended recently at a midsize suburban district in southern Texas, district administrators and teacher leaders tried to clarify exactly how performance evaluation results were going to be used before they could make any substantive decisions on new procedures.

Tony Davis, a senior director in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, works with districts to research, design and implement educator evaluation systems.

I have worked closely with state and regional service agencies and local school districts undertaking this ambitious task. In every instance, these agencies prioritized actions, crafted plans and executed strategies — always with the intent of addressing concerns that arose and transitioning smoothly to a new, meaningful, manageable system of evaluating teachers.

Of course, evaluating whether classroom teachers are “good” is a complex task, shining a light not only on the professionalism and integrity of individuals but also on just about everything that happens inside a school. It’s not surprising people are anxious — or that the districts and states that are developing or implementing new teacher-evaluation systems have experienced varying degrees of success.

Common Factors
While the selection, implementation and effective use of new evaluation systems remains a challenge, successful early adopters share some commonalities. Whether you are putting in place a new system or revamping an existing protocol, you may want to consider these suggestions, drawn from my work with schools and districts.

Start with a clear vision and well-defined purpose.

Ask yourself: Why do we evaluate teachers? This may seem like a rhetorical question, but without a clearly defined vision and purpose, a new teacher-evaluation system can be as ineffective as its predecessor.

States have adopted different philosophies and approaches to improving teacher-evaluation systems. North Carolina developed its own instrument for statewide use. New Jersey opted to give districts a list of preapproved instruments that meet set criteria and state expectations of individual performance. Other states establish the criteria and allow districts to decide for themselves whether to adopt new instruments or overhaul their existing process.

Whether state mandated or locally developed, simply adopting a new or renovated instrument is not enough. Successful implementers had a more robust vision of the potential of a new teacher-evaluation system that transcended mere policy compliance and was exemplified by clearly defined purposes.

One rural Indiana school district convened a committee that included teacher leaders from the core subjects and specialist areas representing the various grade levels and disciplines to discuss teacher evaluation beyond state and local policy requirements. With district support and input from teachers, the 12-member committee crafted a vision that stated teacher evaluation would serve as a formative process intended to inform individual and organizational professional development.

While piloting the new system, district leaders ensured evaluation practices were monitored and consistently applied, attending to the purposes agreed upon by the committee. As a result, teachers requested their adopted evaluation system be a part of their negotiated agreement.

The purposes defined by successful implementers share a common set of characteristics that echo current research and emerging best practice on teacher evaluation.

First, the primary purpose of evaluation is formative, emphasizing performance improvement and identifying professional development and growth opportunities.

Second, performance improvement is non-negotiable, and evaluation must serve a summative role in identifying the differences between high and low performers in order to meet state or local requirements for performance pay or teacher status.

Lastly, evaluation embodies district values and assumptions about fairness and consistency in performance reviews and supports a culture of continuous improvement across the entire system.

Communicate and collaborate.

Implementing a new teacher-evaluation system requires a change in the culture of a district. Those with new or upgraded systems challenged their values, attitudes and assumptions about evaluation and accountability. To make teachers more comfortable with such significant change, these districts systemically addressed their expectations, concerns and needs for information.

“No district should even attempt to bring a new system in without the administration and teachers being on the same page,” said the superintendent of a rural school district in New Jersey that serves three townships and approximately 4,300 students.

He strategically and intentionally framed the initiative in a way that created dissatisfaction with the current system and provided optimistic possibilities for improvement. Their statements of purpose personalized the work of teachers and their impact on students and communicated that a new system was about improving teachers’ practice.

The district followed up by establishing transition teams in each school consisting of teachers and building-level leaders committed to dissemination of information relating to teacher evaluation. Team meetings provided frequent opportunities for teachers to ask questions and bring their concerns forward. This team was not a decision-making body but rather a conduit for information to alleviate tensions, openly address concerns, and obtain buy-in of their building-level colleagues.

Like other successful implementers, this district realized that prior to implementation, thoughtful discussion and planning among teachers, school leaders and central-office instructional staff had to take place. This realization led to a consensus of teacher support for the new system.

Make evaluation a priority.

“If you don’t prioritize teacher evaluation, there will be little hope of meeting the expected outcomes of improving teacher effectiveness and increasing student achievement.” That’s how the assistant superintendent in a suburban East Coast district summed up the work of upgrading teacher evaluation. For his district and others, prioritizing teacher evaluation meant investing in professional development.

The training methodology a school district chooses depends on its size, budget and time frame. The leaders of a rural district in New Jersey with about 3,000 students required every teacher be trained by an approved and qualified staff member from a local educational service agency. A large, suburban school district in Texas, on the other hand, built internal capacity and identified a cadre of key staff members, who were trained to deliver professional development to each school. A third approach was taken by an urban school district in North Carolina, where a cadre of three individuals from each building, consisting of the principal and two teacher leaders, served as the trainers and first-line system of support.

One observation worth noting: Organizations using a system of support, such as a BOCES or regional education agency, leveraged the relationships with and the professionalism of the staff members of those organizations to complement the implementation efforts of local school districts’ professional development staff. The state of Oklahoma relied on the expertise of the staff of the state professional leadership organization to collaborate with local school districts on professional development.

Regardless of methodology, successful districts placed value on training that ensured teachers and school leaders understood the criteria on which teachers would be evaluated, the policies governing evaluation, and the process and practices required for effective evaluation and supervision.

Ensure quality evaluation practices.

At times, even high-performing principals are guilty of using the “drive-by technique” to collect observation data. Perhaps they are influenced by past observations or experiences that lead them to believe a teacher is already effective, so they don’t spend as much time or thought observing that teacher. This does a disservice to the teacher, the principal and the process.

Actually, some school districts do not emphasize high-quality evaluation practices — and many principal preparation programs don’t adequately address the duty. This leaves administrators ill-equipped to observe a classroom, provide quality feedback, conference effectively and collaborate on building performance goals.


Additional Resources

Some school districts I have worked with insisted on providing additional training for principals and central-office staff to help them become better-skilled evaluators. Focusing on rater quality is complex, expensive and time-consuming, but it goes a long way toward ensuring the feedback teachers receive is accurate and constructive and that ratings are consistent from principal to principal and consistent over time.

These districts want to ensure their teachers understand what they are expected to know and be able to do and that observers know exactly what to look for and can provide the worthwhile feedback to improve classroom instruction. Several states, including New York and Illinois, have adopted statutes that address rater quality. In Oklahoma, evaluators use videos of teaching episodes to practice, comparing their ratings with the actual ratings the teachers received.

Ambitious Undertaking
The decision to adopt a new evaluation instrument or revamp existing practices is the beginning of a lengthy, complex process. To meet the ambitious goals of educator effectiveness — improving instructional performance, retaining quality teachers and increasing teacher productivity — and to successfully implement new instruments and systems, district leaders have much to consider.

Successful implementers of new systems shared common strategies and tactics; each district emphasized them in a manner best fitting its specific needs. In almost every case, principals and teachers agreed that, while improving student learning is a work in progress, their new professional evaluation system has helped to focus on the quality of instruction, which ultimately can lead to consistent quality across all schools and for all students.

Tony Davis is a senior director at McREL in Denver, Colo. E-mail: tdavis@mcrel.org. Twitter: @TonyDavisPhD


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