Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Educator Evaluation: What's in an Effective Program?

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering a new educator evaluation system that will include, among other things, the use of student achievement data to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. The Commissioner’s proposal has raised eyebrows among many teachers who believe that MCAS results, for example, will not be be used effectively or fairly to evaluate a teacher’s classroom performance. In fact, fewer than 20% of all K-12 teachers’ students take the MCAS each year so the reasonable and practical use of this data appears to be limited.

The proposed regulations also suggest establishing regular review cycles for teachers and administrators, shortening the time an underperforming teacher must improve before he is terminated and generally ensuring that a culture of accountability is established within a school system. There’s a lot to like in the proposed new regs.

Without arguing the merits or pitfalls of the Commissioner’s plan, let me offer some of the critical components that I believe should be part of a well-designed teacher and administrator evaluator system:

Supporting and strengthening teacher classroom performance should be at the heart of any evaluation plan. The goal of any evaluation system should be to assist a teacher to grow, learn, and innovate. It should not primarily be designed to manage the ineffective or underperforming teacher or simply become a bureaucratic exercise that is reluctantly completed by harried administrators. Teaching is a challenging and complex endeavor, and the system should be designed to provide tools, resources, feedback, and modeling to help a teacher, particularly a new or struggling teacher, to succeed in the classroom. The process should also provide ample support for teachers to take risks and create new and innovative lessons for students. In Needham the vast majority of our teachers excel in the classroom, and the existing evaluation instrument acknowledges that reality and builds within it opportunities for good teachers to get stronger and develop additional capacity for reaching all students.

Ensure multiple classroom observations and reflective conversations are part of the evaluation system. Over the years I have watched teachers fret and sweat as they prepare for the once-per-semester 55-minute classroom observation (also known as the “dog and pony show”). They prepare handouts, ensure the technology is working, design a beautifully crafted lesson plan, make provisions for necessary materials, and generally execute with precision. Unless, of course, the projector bulb blows. And then the administrator walks away, and eventually writes a two or three page classroom observation—sometimes a few weeks later—but typically long after there is any real opportunity for a thoughtful and reflective conversation about what happened in the classroom. Unfortunately, observation reports often arrive after the teacher, administrator, and certainly the students, are all on to something else. Frequent, briefer, and even unannounced classroom visits would allow administrators to observe and support teachers more naturally and without the anxiety the two or three seasonal and staid observations bring. Administrators can then coach throughout the year rather than judge once per term. And reflective discussions and conversations between the teacher and administrator immediately following these brief visits are essential: The administrator can ask questions, make suggestions, or offer encouragement with a promise of coming back in a day or two to see how things are progressing. The teacher can talk about an individual student’s needs, demonstrate growth of students over time, and share frustrations and new ideas as they occur. The Needham Public Schools will pilot the Marshall Model, a system designed to promote frequent classroom observations tied to clear and regular feedback and reflective dialogue between the teacher and administrator. Thus, rather than looking like an annual inspection, the evaluation process feels more like instructional coaching.

Integrate local student assessment data, school goals, and community engagement efforts into the evaluation system. Principals should ensure schools are organized in such a way that teachers can regularly and naturally collaborate with one another to develop challenging assessments to better understand student learning, growth, and achievement. Ask teachers how this data informs their practice and facilitates student growth: What is working? How will you respond when students are (or are not) learning? How can I help you? Can you assist another teacher who is struggling with similar students? Teachers should ask: Can I work with another colleague to develop a program for advanced students? Can you find additional resources for me? What professional development opportunities exist to enhance my practice? These questions should all be part of the ongoing conversations between the teacher and the administrator. Additionally, integrating school and district goals into teacher and administrator practice is essential to school and student improvement efforts. The evaluation process should consider the teacher’s ability to participate in and even lead activities beyond his or her classroom that ultimately strengthen the school, the district, and the learning experience for each child.

Ensure student voices are part of the evaluation process. Written student feedback, provided at least annually, should be included as a data source for teachers as they reflect on their classroom practice. In my experience, students provide candid and serious feedback to teachers, and they can help assess the quality of the classroom environment and experience. Of course teachers need to balance the extreme sentiments from students—the good and the bad—with the overall thematic comments that let teachers know if homework is turned back in a timely way or if the teacher rushes through material before the students understand it. Students thrive in a learning environment where they believe their voice is heard, and they can influence in a positive way the behavior of the adults who care about them. The same is true for administrators, including principals, who must seek out written feedback about their leadership from students, teachers, and parents, most of whom are eager to share their voices to improve the school community and enrich a school’s culture.

Let’s remember what teacher and administrator evaluation is for: Supporting educators and holding them to high standards to improve and enhance the school experience for each child. Although we have room to grow, that’s just what we are doing in the Needham Public Schools.

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