How to Get Better

What will it take for teacher evaluations to become a meaningful tool for professional growth?

May 9, 2016 4:17 PM
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By Jessica Lander

Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and 2015 Harvard Graduate School of Education alum, is blogging for  Usable Knowledge  about what happens when research ideas, policy initiatives, and best practices meet the real world. (Read all the posts in her Usable Knowledge series.) Jessica also writes about education for the  Boston Globe  and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at  @jessica_lander.

My friend in New York City teaches at a charter school. He tells me about his teaching coach, who drops in weekly to watch him explain metaphors and similes to seventh graders. Each week he meets with his coach for about an hour, one-on-one or in groups, to discuss strategies and review techniques. A friend in California, also at a charter school, describes a similar process of observation, evaluation, and discussion. A third in Ohio says the same.

Conversations with friends who’ve taught in traditional public schools are often (but not always) starkly different. One friend told me, “In my first semester, no one came to my classroom. It was really a triage situation. In October, my assistant principal told me I was doing a great job. I asked her how she knew, since she had never been in my classroom. She replied, ‘Whenever I walk by, the students are looking at you.’”

My own experience is comparable. But there is only so much that I, or any other teacher, can learn through trial and error. Real improvement requires another set of eyes in the classroom, as well as the ideas, intuition, and insights of an expert educator.

Meaningful teacher observations and evaluations are incredibly important, for two key reasons: They provide real-time feedback to help teachers improve their practice, and they help measure teachers’ long-term effectiveness — identifying who to promote, who to support, and who to fire.

These goals were central to the 2009 Race to the Top challenge grants, where a key component was incentivizing states to create robust teacher evaluation policies. Most states now have such policies.

But sound policy does not necessarily translate to successful implementation. As a teacher, it is easy to spot the gaps.

Throughout the year, we teachers are required to write up reports that document our progress, incorporating data measuring student and professional growth, evidence of professional collaboration and contributions, and snapshots of successful and extensive family engagement. But our heads of department and administrators are so overcommitted — sometimes juggling the work of what should be two or three positions — that there is rarely time for any observation or feedback.

In too many schools, teacher evaluations have become about compliance, not competency. A report from the nonprofit TNTP found that evaluations are often neither effective (more than 98% of teachers are deemed “satisfactory”) nor instructive (three out of four evaluated teachers never received feedback to help them improve their practice).

Without the funding, time, or staff required, how is it possible for schools to successfully achieve the goals that evaluations were meant to serve?

How do we begin closing the gap between policy and practice?

While we have yet to find the perfect system to accurately assess a teacher’s impact, there are tools that could help over-taxed administrators more comprehensively measure teacher success. The Best Foot Forward project, run by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, is currently studying the impact of having teachers videotape their own lessons and upload them for their own development and for evaluation. The results so far are promising, and the technique could lead to more accurate evaluations (and more informed feedback), particularly by administrators who can’t make it into classrooms. Researchers have released a useful toolkit for educators who want to use video to assess their practice in their own classrooms.

But even more important, evaluations should be the backbone of a continual cycle of learning and professional development, helping to take good teachers and make them great. I’ve seen the difference firsthand.

I became a teacher within days of no longer being a student. I graduated on a Tuesday, flew halfway around the world Friday and began teaching my first classes on Monday. That first morning, the temperature already a sweltering 96 degrees, I was handed a stack of textbooks and a schedule, then pointed in the direction of my first class. Not once throughout the year did another teacher or administrator peek a head into my classroom — though a string of stray dogs did amble in and out on a regular basis.

The next year, working as an extended-learning day teacher in Boston, was completely different. Each day, all eighteen teachers met for over an hour to collaborate, model lessons, and debrief. Within two weeks, my supervisor was in the back of my classroom, video camera rolling. Together we reviewed the footage and discussed moments where I could have provided more wait time before calling on a student, or occasions when I could have given clearer instructions. Her feedback helped me improve my practice in ways I wouldn’t have on my own.

Individual states are beginning to rethink evaluation metrics, and the stipulations of the new Every Student Succeeds Act will likely affect how and what is measured both locally and nationally. But if we truly want teacher evaluations to be part of an ongoing cycle of learning and growth, one that helps to cultivate great teachers, then effective policy has to address school capacity, particularly the capacity of traditional public schools.  We have to give schools the resources they need to allow mentors and administrators the time and flexibility to sit and watch a class on multiplying fractions, meet with the teacher to discuss strategies, and then do it again, and again, and again throughout the year.