Baby Steps: Moving Forward on Teacher Evaluation

Shifting From an Accountability to an Instructional Mindset for Teacher Evaluation

I was recently invited by Future Focused Education to share my thoughts on teacher evaluation for their blog. I contributed two posts about the insurmountable challenges of state-mandated teacher evaluation and the promise of coherent locally-based support and evaluation systems. In this post, I briefly summarize the key arguments from these posts, focusing on how we might shift from an evaluation to an instructional feedback mindset. I conclude with a discussion of the importance of reflective practice as a necessary condition for realizing sustainable improvements in teaching quality.

Problems With State-Mandated Teacher Evaluation

One of my major concerns with state-mandated teacher evaluation systems is the lack of coherence among the various components of the system generally due to three main issues: The separation of the evaluation of teacher practices from the evaluation of student learning; lack of comparability of student learning measures across teachers; and lack of comparability across classrooms, schools, and districts. As state-mandated teacher evaluation systems were implemented, we recognized the unintended incoherence that resulted from separating teacher practices from student learning and tried to find ways to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I and my colleagues, Erika Landl and Elena Diaz-Bilello, offered suggestions for establishing performance standards for educators that could bring more coherence back into the system, but we knew this objective would be an uphill climb.

Those pushing state-led evaluations were enamored with complex statistical models for evaluating changes in test scores. Center for Assessment professionals and others attempted to help states overcome the challenges of such approaches in the “tested” grades, but the “non-tested subject grades” were like the wild west of accountability. Back in 2012, I and my colleagues outlined these issues and offered some paths forward, but our suggestions for improving the system were contingent upon reducing state-level accountability and comparability pressures.

Center professionals emphasized using assessment data to support improvements in teaching rather than simply for evaluative purposes. We focused considerable efforts on conceptualizing, designing, implementing, evaluating, and building capacity for the use of student learning objectives (SLOs), resulting in the Center’s SLO Toolkit and many other resources. We had hoped that SLOs would strengthen classroom assessment and instruction—and it did in many cases—but the corrupting influences of high-stakes accountability was too much to withstand to realize the promise of SLOs in state-mandated systems. 

A Rebalancing: It’s the Principal

argued that states essentially attempted to create “principal-proof” evaluation systems, but that this approach backfired because principals were responsible for significant portions of the ratings. Leaders must have the knowledge and skills necessary to evaluate and provide useful feedback to educators, and they must have the authority to implement such systems while allowing for protections found in collective bargaining agreements. 

Striving for Coherence

Instead of treating school and educator accountability (evaluation) systems as entirely separate enterprises, we should design systems that rely on complementary information provided by each level of the system. 

More importantly, evidence coming from student learning and teacher practices should not be viewed as separate entities. I noted that most of the major tools for measuring teacher practice require evidence of teachers’ planning and executing instructional activities or units. Including some indication of what students learned from these units could help reduce incoherence. We also need to create systems that incentivize teachers and others to create better local measures, use assessment information to foster student learning, and eventually document student progress throughout a year or longer. Again, most of the major teacher evaluation tools draw attention to appropriate design and use of assessments for instruction and learning. Finally, the support and evaluation process should be contextualized within rich curriculum units, such as those designed through an Understanding by Design (UBD) framework (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Such units include multiple measures of student performance that are not seen simply as extra, accountability assessments. Additionally, such instructional units are often designed collaboratively by teams of educators, which can enhance the internal accountability associated with this more contextualized approach. Such units provide opportunities for generating and collecting data related to many aspects of teaching practice and student learning. 

The Importance of Feedback in Improving Teacher Performance

One implicit (sometimes explicit) theory of action for the use of teacher evaluation systems was it would be a way to eliminate the worst teachers and incentivize the rest to improve their performance for fear of being fired. A competing theory of action—one that I support—is that high-quality teacher evaluation systems should produce information to allow educators and leaders to shift the distribution of teaching quality to the right (i.e. higher).

Unfortunately, we do not go magically from information to improvement. In most cases, improving one’s performance requires high-quality and task-specific feedback.  The promise of educator support and evaluation systems was that teachers would receive useful feedback about their practice, guided in part by research-based tools and skilled instructional leaders. Even if we assumed that school principals had the knowledge and skills to provide targeted feedback, the culture and organization of schools have not been designed to foster a climate of inquiry and critique.

A local elementary school principal explained to me that she did not think there was any point in providing feedback to her teachers until they had a mindset to accept and act on the feedback. She spent a year working with her teachers on becoming reflective practitioners, a process you can explore further in Becoming a Critically-Reflective Teacher by S.D. Brookfield, or The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action by D.A. Schon. She reasoned that if her teachers were not yet able to reflect on their own practice, they could not accept her feedback, because high-quality feedback should always trigger introspection. 

I had not heard this viewpoint in all my work on large-scale educator evaluation systems, but it makes so much sense. With the push to ensure that students possess 21st Century skills, including metacognition and other reflective skills, we must ensure that the adults in our school system have opportunities to develop similar skills so they are able incorporate meaningful feedback and improve their teaching.