In education policy — as in life — there are few second chances. So it’s exciting to see that as a result of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), teacher evaluation seems to have gotten one of these rare opportunities to reassess and change course.
ESSA hands more policymaking power to states and districts. States will have complete control over teacher evaluations and more power over how test scores and other factors figure into accountability. In fact, state legislatures have already started to change assessment and accountability requirements.
So how should we use this second chance to design a teacher evaluation system with the right priorities that helps both students and teachers reach higher levels?
The short answer is: with a focus on growth.
When we put teacher growth at the center of evaluation, instructional practice, job satisfaction and student performance improve.
As the Center for Educational Leadership’s director of teacher evaluation, I have spent the last five years helping teachers, coaches and principals improve their instructional practice using our 5D™ Instructional Framework and 5D+™ Rubric for Instructional Growth and Teacher Evaluation.
If there is one takeaway from this experience, it’s that when we put teacher growth at the center of evaluation, instructional practice, job satisfaction and student performance improve.
Under the Race to the Top, teaching was often a race to the test because in many states teacher evaluation was tied to varying degrees to student test performance. Fortunately, this often counterproductive connection is now loosened.
But that doesn’t mean the issue of teacher evaluation is solved or we should go back to older systems. It means that we need to build a system that helps teachers improve and gives them a say in their professional learning.
Here at the Center for Educational Leadership, we have always emphasized growth as the guiding principle for teacher evaluation. It's the foundation of our work and our teacher evaluation system. So let’s take a look at the principles and structures that need to be in place to make such a system work.
Stop checklist-style, once a year evaluation
Teacher evaluation used to be — and in many cases still is — more of a compliance ritual than a learning opportunity. Often there is some kind of pre-conference, one single classroom observation and a post-conference. Most of these meetings are heavy on checking boxes and light on promoting teacher growth.
Teacher evaluation used to be — and in many cases still is — more of a compliance ritual than a learning opportunity.
No wonder that a study of teachers experiencing such traditional teacher evaluation found that 41 percent of teachers said their evaluation was “just a formality,” and another 32 percent said at best it was “well-intentioned but not particularly helpful” to their teaching practice (Duffett, Farkas, Rotherham, and Silva, 2008).
In 2009, TNTP’s The Widget Effect showed that teacher evaluation doesn’t assess instructional performance accurately or helps schools take action to change the situation.
Make teacher learning job-embedded and relevant
It’s clear that we need a new approach to teacher evaluation. The place to start is the research on successful professional development. It consistently says that teacher learning that is job-embedded and relevant to the teacher plays a key role in successful implementation of teaching practices in the classroom.
If we want to enable teachers to really change the way they work, then they must have opportunities to talk, think, try out, and hone new practices.
If we want to enable teachers to really change the way they work, then they must have opportunities to talk, think, try out, and hone new practices. Lieberman et al. (1996) show that this means teachers must be involved in learning about, developing, and using new ideas with their students.
Professional learning that “sticks” and makes a difference is not done in one or two days. It needs to be part of the expectation for the teacher’s role and an integral part of the culture of the school.
To be effective, it must be many things: experiential, collaborative, ongoing and connected to a teacher’s work — all things many of us have heard before in one training or another.
What’s often missing, though, is a focus on inquiry that goes beyond individual teacher efforts.
Focus on inquiry-based teacher evaluation
A cycle of inquiry is a process of goal setting, study and action, feedback and new practice. A high school math teacher I worked with described it this way:
“The inquiry cycle is like a spiral, as you go through the steps of the cycle, the steps focus the questions you’re asking about your practice and what you are looking at. As a result of those questions, you are going deeper into your practice and your students’ learning.”
Combined with a research-based instructional framework and rubric, a clear focus on student learning needs and effective, positive feedback, inquiry-based teacher evaluation improves teacher practice and student learning.
The advantage of an inquiry-based evaluation process — like our 5D+ inquiry process — is that teachers find it more meaningful than previous evaluation practice. It creates a positive learning environment that results in changes in instructional practice and changes in the way that students learn. It gives teachers ownership over what they are learning (Steps 1 & 2 in the 5D+ Inquiry Cycle) and is embedded in their everyday practice (Step 3 in the 5D+ Inquiry Cycle.)
Plus, research by Michael Copland (2003) suggests that when all teachers in a school engage in cycles of inquiry, that school can start to develop an inquiry-focused culture. When educators create a culture of inquiry, professional learning eventually comes to be expected, sought, and an ongoing part of teaching and school life (Lieberman, 1995; McClure, 1991; McLaughlin, 1991.).
Time for a new evaluation approach
For years, teacher evaluation was just another hoop to jump through. Then, without much preparation for teachers or principals, it became a high-stakes affair that emphasized test preparation. Many teachers pointed out that this didn’t serve them or their students well.
It’s clear that we need a new approach to teacher evaluation. And to get it right, we need to recognize that teaching is just the other side of learning. Most teachers are in their profession because they enjoy the process of learning, supporting learning and generally growing knowledge.
If we harness this passion, give them a say in their own professional learning and offer ongoing support we can create an evaluation system that guides teachers towards instructional mastery and makes sure all students get the kind of instruction they need to succeed.