Want to stir some lively conversation among any gathering of teachers? Bring up teacher evaluation and assessment. For decades, teachers, administrators and policymakers have sparred over the issue -- with little in the way of progress. Most teacher evaluation is still principal-driven, drive-by, and checklist oriented. That could change as the new Administration begins to target -- and fund -- teaching quality initiatives, in concert with the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies.
Will teachers have a voice in this debate? Two TLN members from California aren't waiting to be asked. In a recent joint interview with the New York group TeachersCount, Anthony Cody and David B. Cohen described some fundamental changes they'd like to see in teacher evaluation and assessment -- and warned of the consequences of a narrow approach to making judgments about teaching quality.
Here's a sample:
1. What are some of the problems with current teacher evaluation practices?
Anthony Cody: Time is a big factor. Recent surveys of principals have revealed they have inadequate time for observing and evaluating their teachers. My experience as a Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) coach in my district supports this because over the course of two years I saw dozens of evaluations that were incomplete. Many of these teachers should have been enrolled in PAR, and might have wound up being terminated, but their principals did not have the time to follow through.
This also reflects another weakness of our practice -- that evaluation is the sole responsibility of a few site administrators, and is primarily used as a means of eliminating “bad” teachers. Evaluation tends to occur in the form of a few isolated observations, with little connection to the professional growth of most teachers.
David Cohen: We also see that the tools and training for evaluation are rather uneven. Too many evaluators are going into classrooms armed with checklists that aren’t nearly up to the task of capturing the complexity of what they might observe. And it’s not just the materials, but the evaluators themselves who need development.
I’m fortunate to work in a district where secondary school teachers are mostly evaluated by a fellow teacher serving as the instructional supervisor. Unlike traditional department chairs, these teachers have had some additional training in conducting evaluations. It’s a long-standing and popular practice at this point, with the added benefit of providing teachers with evaluators who know the subject matter. If your principal used to teach English, and you're the AP physics instructor helping students with the calculus involved in their lab work, there seems to be an inherent limitation in that evaluative relationship.
2. What improvements would we see in your ideal evaluation system?
Anthony: We may be able to get beyond the time crunch for the principal if we re-imagine evaluation as something more positive, more collaborative and more integrated with professional culture at a school site.
David: This is a shift in mindset: let’s appeal to the best in professional educators. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want to be effective in the classroom. But we know that in order to maximize effectiveness, we need the opportunity to analyze and reflect on our work, and use that process to improve.
The current pace of teaching, and the student loads for secondary school teachers in particular, present huge obstacles to that kind of work: when you’re trying to monitor and manage the learning of 150 students or more, you’re in survival mode too often. If more schools would build in time for careful study of our own work, collaboration with colleagues and guidance by teacher leaders and administrators, we’d be far ahead of current practices. I’m certain we’d end up talking more about students’ learning and achievement, which goes a long way towards solving other issues in the classroom (like classroom management) without letting those issues consume you.
Other interview questions include:
3. Why do teachers resist the use of student performance in teacher evaluations?
4. What are the benefits of improved evaluation if tenured teachers are almost impossible to remove?
5. How does teacher evaluation fit in with current reform efforts?
6. What is the role of teacher evaluation in elevating teacher quality? Should we have performance pay to reward teachers with the best evaluations?
7. How has NCLB affected teacher evaluation?