Instructional Leadership in Action

Teacher Evaluation for Continuous Growth and Improvement

by Stephen Fink on Jan 14, 2013

Fink_S_18_175x175_5In this age of political disagreement, most would agree that the main purpose of newly adopted teacher evaluation instruments is to help teachers improve their teaching effectiveness. However, a policy disconnect stands in the way of how these new evaluation models can lead to improvement in teaching practice. To understand why, let’s take a look at the genesis of the recent teacher evaluation movement.

When President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal government aimed to stimulate the economy, support job creation, and invest in critical sectors, including education. The Recovery Act provided $4.35 billion for the Race to the Top Fund, a grant program designed to reward states for education reform. The first round of grants sought to ensure that states were serious about teacher accountability. In order to receive funding, states had to enact sweeping changes in how teachers were to be evaluated.

Race to the Top implied that we can no longer afford to retain ineffective teachers. It placed the effort to develop new teacher evaluation models very clearly in the policy world of accountability, which is quite different than continuous growth and improvement.

Accountability and continuous growth are not mutually exclusive. Given our mission here at the Center for Educational Leadership to improve educational outcomes for all students, the last thing I would want to convey is that we are resistant to accountability. We believe that teachers and leaders must be held accountable for the quality of education in their schools and districts. That said, how we use the new evaluation tools will determine whether we simply create the aura of accountability or actually help our teachers grow and improve their practice.

I had this very conversation with a school district superintendent who argued that their new district evaluation instrument would (by itself) improve teacher effectiveness by more clearly identifying strengths and weaknesses. He was so convinced in the power of the instrument to improve performance that he believed the only professional development needed was to train principals how to use the instrument.

Being fond of sports analogies as I am, I compared that reasoning to a football coach who precisely evaluates and rates his players’ performance, but does nothing more. Doesn’t the only logical means of improving the players’ performance lie in the coach’s ability to teach and coach, which involves modeling, demonstrating, providing just-in-time feedback, reflective study and practice?

In other words, rating performance (no matter how accurately) does not guarantee the improvement of performance. No logic chain supports that argument.

This brings us back to the critical relationship between accountability and continuous growth. In effect, accountability cannot guarantee continuous growth and improvement. It can simply serve as a gatekeeper for rating teaching practice; maybe more accurately than past evaluation models, but no better in actually developing one’s capacity to teach more effectively. Conversely, a focus on helping teachers continually grow and improve can result in true accountability. So the two are inextricably related but it’s important to know what ultimately drives this train – and that is a clear focus on growing teachers’ practice.

Any effort to focus on teachers’ continuous growth and improvement must ensure that our school leaders have the knowledge necessary to use the evaluation instrument with fidelity. Further, leaders must engage teachers in collaborative cycles of reflective inquiry that use the evaluation criteria in an ongoing improvement process. It’s really a two-part equation:  1) Developing a deep and shared knowledge of high-quality instruction; and 2) Seizing on that knowledge to develop greater expertise in leading for instructional improvement.

Let’s start with part one of the equation which includes the knowledge to use the evaluation instrument with fidelity. In fact this is an often overlooked aspect of the new teacher evaluation instruments. Evaluators must have the instructional expertise necessary to render an accurate diagnosis of teaching along with concrete and useful next steps for the professional learning of the teacher. If our principals cannot do this well, then continuous growth and improvement is just a fantasy.

For example, imagine providing the latest medical imaging technology to first-year medical students and asking those students to interpret complex images of anatomical systems prior to studying human anatomy. The likelihood of those students being able to interpret and diagnose with any kind of accuracy would be very small. However, we are doing this very same thing in state after state. We are building new, sophisticated teacher evaluation instruments but only providing the most cursory training to use the instrument with accuracy.

There is a default assumption that our school leaders have already developed expertise in instructional anatomy to use these instruments as designed. However we know this to be a false assumption based on instructional expertise data gathered from assessments of nearly 3,000 school and district leaders (see School and District Leaders as Instructional Experts: What We Are Learning.)

We must recognize that our school leaders need to engage in the same kind of deep study of instructional anatomy as our doctors do for human anatomy. We best not assume that just because leaders have been a teacher or principal, they have the knowledge of instruction necessary to effectively use the new evaluation instruments.

In our experience with the CEL 5D+ teacher evaluation rubric, we learned that we need to provide this important instructional anatomy background knowledge before school leaders can learn to use the new evaluation tools. A note to policymakers: this adds additional time and cost to the process. If policymakers underinvest in this critical process, they may achieve the aura of accountability, but without building a durable foundation that results in, and sustains, continuous improvement.

Even with an ample investment in developing leaders’ instructional expertise, continuous growth and improvement will not occur without an investment in part two of the equation. We must equip leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to grow teachers’ practice, such as:

  1. How to provide real-time, useful feedback to teachers.
  2. How to engage in difficult/challenging conversations.
  3. How to create a culture of collaboration and reflective practice.
  4. How to develop cycles of inquiry that result in teachers taking on the responsibility for their own (and others’) growth and learning.

The expertise necessary to grow teachers’ practice transcends any specific teacher evaluation instrument. Regardless of the evaluation instrument being used, and one’s ability to use that instrument, the knowledge and skills listed above are crucial to ensuring continuous growth and improvement. And a secondary note to policy makers: This too will require a substantial investment.

Just as General Motors couldn’t produce a fundamentally different car without investing heartily in the redesign of its cars and the retooling of its factories, school districts will not produce a fundamentally improved teaching product without a commensurate investment of time and resources.

However let’s be clear. New investment must result in teaching practice that is continuously growing and improving. We must use this barometer to gauge our progress. If we do so with unrelenting discipline and focus, we can move beyond the aura of accountability to the dramatic improvement of student learning and achievement for all of our students. This is what I call real accountability!

Topics: Teaching Effectiveness

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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