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“Just Effective": Is that good enough?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 13, 2012 4 min read
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After a conversation with my friend Don Bartalo, a school superintendent and instructional coach, on how it feels to have the teacher evaluation process and norms shifted under your feet, he offered this excellent reflection:

By Don Bartalo:

Well, it won’t be long before we are reading more articles like this one, written by Elizabeth, a high school English teacher from Florida.

Elizabeth was very upset about her most recent annual evaluation. No surprise that the source of her anxiety is her state’s new legislative mandates and methods for evaluating teachers. Since most states are heading down the same road, we might be able to learn

something from her experience.

Elizabeth was devastated when she received an “effective” rating (second highest in the new system) saying that she was “merely put into purgatory” (temporary punishment in lieu of rising to highly effective). Naturally, Elizabeth was hoping for the highest rating which would have earned her a merit pay raise and the professional recognition she believed she deserved. Elizabeth considered “effective” as a downgrade and perhaps, like many other competent teachers, was used to receiving excellent performance ratings on past annual evaluations. She expected no less from the new system.

It is possible that what Elizabeth calls a “flawed system” is really a much different evaluation system than she is used to. First, it is a system that does not automatically extend previous levels of performance appraisals and rankings. The evaluation slate is clean, so to speak. Expectations for the highest levels of ratings must be matched by higher levels of performance in the classroom.

The new evaluation system used in Elizabeth’s district compares classroom practice with the research-based components of effective teaching found in Marzano’s Framework for Effective Instruction. The Comprehensive Framework is comprised of strategies taken from four separate bodies of research that relate to effective teaching. Examples of these strategies include organizing students for cognitively complex tasks and noticing and reacting when students are not engaged appropriately.

While the new teacher evaluation system described by Elizabeth is certainly not without its shortcomings (e.g., how it was developed and implemented), there is, however, one thing that must be kept in mind. This new evaluation system is a definite attempt to provide more objective criteria to a process that has been seriously flawed over the years by subjectivity. Whether or not teachers want to be evaluated in a more objective manner remains to be seen.

Then there is the issue of merit pay, and its close cousin, teacher morale. Reading between the lines from Elizabeth’s “grapevine talk”, it is evident that she had serious doubts about why a few of her colleagues received a “highly effective” rating--"but I doubt it was based solely on their skills.” Such doubts can have a negative impact on the culture of teaching in a school. While much of the general public thinks performance pay for teachers is the way to go, it is a lot like flypaper with many sticking points.

One of the sticking points in implementing merit-pay plans is defining "merit," and deciding when and to whom we should provide bonuses. What should be rewarded: Teacher characteristics? Teacher behaviors? Measurable student achievement?

("When Merit Pay Is Worth Pursuing" by Joshua H. Barnett and Gary W. Ritter, Educational Leadership, October 2008).

In her discussion, under the heading, “Creating Pedagogical Confusion,” Elizabeth provided a sticking point of her own: the need for “collaboration about the evaluative instrument between administration and faculty.” Districts that do not involve teachers in the development of a “tougher” system of evaluation are missing the opportunity to help teachers fully understand how they will be evaluated. When that happens, misconceptions will fill the void left vacant by a lack of understanding and trust.

Without this baseline of understanding and trust, teachers like Elizabeth, may consider unfamiliar performance rubrics as merely “artificial gestures” that do not accurately reflect what teachers really do in a classroom. Naturally, a teacher who does not fully understand the criteria on which his or her evaluation is based will find it difficult to accept a performance appraisal based on those criteria. When this happens the whole idea of using teacher evaluations to improve teaching and learning is undermined.

As a person who has written hundreds of teacher evaluations over the years, I want to thank Elizabeth for having the courage to tell us what it felt like being on the receiving end of a ‘flawed system’ of evaluation. One can only hope that all of us, teachers and administrators, will learn something from her experience.
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Don Bartalo is a nationally recognized instructional leadership developer and coach with K-12 experience as a teacher, teacher leader, assistant principal, principal, and superintendent of schools. He has worked in rural, suburban, and urban school districts. He is the author of Closing the Teaching Gap: Coaching for Instructional Leaders, (Corwin, 2012).

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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