Different Evaluation System, Same Results
The last couple of years have produced a series of pitched battles over teacher evaluation systems. On the one side are state and federal lawmakers; on the other side are teachers and their unions. The battles have been bitter and ugly, even resulting in a big city strike. In the end, of course, reformers prevailed, having control of state and federal dollars. At last we would see strong, complex evaluation systems sure to weed out the worst teachers while identifying those in need of improvement.
Not so fast. As states that have implemented new teacher evaluation systems release their results, we see the results are the same. About 95% of teachers were judged above average or at the very least, satisfactory.
Stephen Sawchuk reports that 98% of Michigan teachers were rated effective or better under their new evaluation system. In Tennessee, 98% of teachers met expectations, and in Florida 97% were judged effective or better. In a Georgia pilot program, 94% of teachers hit the mark.
Both sides of the evaluation battles offer the usual explanations for the results. The unions say it just goes to show that teachers were doing a good job all along. The reformers say that it’s a problem with culture and training.
I think reformers have a point: School culture influences teacher evaluation scores. If a teacher has been getting satisfactory ratings for years, it’s hard to explain how she has suddenly become unsatisfactory. Is she really doing a poorer job? Or was the principal or evaluator not doing his? Are the criteria for good classroom performance now so very different from what they were? And what about the veterans, teachers who have 20-30 years of satisfactory evaluations? How does the supervisor explain that what they’ve been doing is no longer considered effective teaching? After all, it was just fine last year. I know from my own experience that as a new teacher, I was rated excellent in nearly every category during my second year of teaching in a suburban school. Even I knew I wasn’t excellent. Did I fool the principal or didn’t he know what good teaching was?
Any veteran school person will tell you that it’s not surprising that teachers were rated satisfactory on classroom performance; anyone can get it together to shine once or twice a year for 40 minutes. This is exactly why supervision is a process and not an event. The supervisor needs to be in the classroom every day if possible for a few minutes. No teacher is great – or even satisfactory -- every minute of every day, but it’s easy enough to tell if she is generally effective and kids are learning. Are the day’s objectives clear and shared with students? Are kids engaged and paying attention? Are they participating in their learning? Does the teacher check for understanding? Is there closure at the end of the lesson to review what kids have learned? Is homework meaningful practice? These are the kinds of indicators principals should be looking for. If you’ve dropped into a classroom three times this week and nothing was happening at any time, you need to be paying attention to this teacher’s general performance.
It’s not the evaluation system that makes workers better. It’s clear expectations, valid and continuous feedback, specific directions for improvement, and consequences for failure. You want to see a good school improvement model? Watch Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible.