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Education Opinion

The Most Critical Piece of the Education Puzzle

By Sydney Morris & Evan Stone — August 03, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Sydney Morris and Evan Stone, co-founders and co-CEOs of Educators for Excellence, are guest posting this week. E4E is a national teacher-led organization working to ensure that teachers have a meaningful voice in the creation of policies that impact their classrooms and careers.

If there was one thing we could have asked for in our elementary classrooms in the Bronx, it wouldn’t have been computers for every student in the class. It wouldn’t have been unlimited copy paper (and trust us, copy paper is the equivalent of gold for classroom teachers.) It wouldn’t have been smaller class sizes, or better curriculum resources, or newer books for our libraries. Sure, all of those things are important and beneficial to any teacher. But the one thing that we would have asked for more of was far less tangible - it was meaningful support and feedback.

We were doing what most teachers do on a daily basis - giving it our all. We worked with our students at lunch, tutored them after school, provided extracurricular opportunities like ballet and chess, and engaged their families in their learning. However, at the end of each school year we watched our kids leave our classroom for the last time, knowing that some had soared to new heights and some were still far behind. We knew that some of what we were doing was working, and that some of what we were doing needed improvement. The problem was that we didn’t know what to improve upon, because no one had provided us that critical feedback. It isn’t that an evaluation system would have made us, or any other teachers, work harder - we were already working hard; however, it would indeed have helped us to work smarter.

The reason we rarely received such support and feedback wasn’t because of a lack of talented or caring individuals in our school - there was an incredible math coach, a committed grade team leader, among many others - but it was because there wasn’t a system-wide, transparent evaluation system to assess our individual professional strengths and areas for improvement.

We each were subject to the perfunctory, “drive-by,” checklist observations that are all too common in schools today. Charts on the wall? Check. Evidence of student work? Check. Classroom under control? Check.

One thing that unions, districts, “reformers,” elected officials, principals, and teachers all seem to agree on is that the current binary, subjective evaluation system isn’t working. It’s not giving the critical information needed to provide more targeted support and professional development to teachers. It’s not helping us identify who our top performing, “irreplaceable” teachers are so we can work to retain them, and share their best practices with others. And it’s also not pinpointing the few amongst us who are unable or unwilling to raise the bar for their students.

Yet despite widespread agreement that we need a new system, the education community has largely struggled to come together and agree on what exactly those new systems should look like, and how they should be implemented. And in the two largest school districts in the country - NYC and LAUSD - the district and the local unions are deadlocked in a stalemate on the details, preventing millions of children and thousands of teachers from moving forward.

At Educators for Excellence, we don’t believe that a perfect policy exists, which is why you’ll notice that the ideal evaluation system crafted by E4E-Los Angeles teachers looks slightly different from the one crafted by E4E-New York teachers.

Bearing in mind that there is no “one size fits all” and that “the devil is in the details,” through our policy teams, focus groups, surveys, and conversations with thousands of teachers, we recommend three key points to those sitting at the negotiating tables:

- Include multiple measures: We need to ensure that evaluations are not based on a single test score or one subjective observation by an administrator. That said, teacher after teacher has told us that they want to be evaluated in part by the progress their students are making. Use evidence of student growth, multiple observers, surveys from students, peer reviews, and other valid measures to ensure the most comprehensive and reliable system possible. - Provide choice, clear timelines, and defaults for districts and schools: Create opportunities for local districts, and even schools, to customize certain pieces of the evaluation system for their individual contexts. However, states should create default systems in the event that local systems don't come to fruition in a timely and productive manner. - Implement with fidelity: Provide training, and checks and balances, to ensure inter-rater reliability. Fix problems as they arise - no one expects it to be perfect the first go-around. Be transparent. Ask teachers what is working and what isn't. Build a sense of trust, and create a common language to discuss our profession and our growth.

What is most important is that any system is created with the input, buy-in, and support of those who will be implementing it - classroom teachers and administrators.

If we were to line up the dozen items on E4E’s declaration - a vision statement created by teachers, for teachers - like dominoes, the one we would want to push over first would be a “holistic and equitable system for evaluating teachers.” Before we can responsibly address other important areas for reform such as teacher compensation, tenure, layoffs, professional development, and career ladders, we have to start by getting evaluation and support systems right.

At E4E, we will continue to stand together as a growing group of educators advocating for changes to our profession. We will call on our districts and our unions to move past the politics to find solutions, and provide us with the meaningful support and feedback that all educators deserve.

Thanks again to Rick for giving us this platform to share the voices of the thousands of E4E teachers across the country. And thanks to those of you who have followed our musings this week. If you believe in the power of teacher-led change, check us out at www.educators4excellence.org.

--Sydney Morris and Evan Stone

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.