In Connecticut, Moving Past Pencil and Paper: Teachers EvaluatedOn Class Behavior

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By Ann Bradley

Hartford, Conn.--The 55 educators meeting in a plush conference room of the new legislative building here were learning a new language of assessment: the difficult, nuanced description of what goes into effective teaching.

They watched videotapes of young practitioners engaged in the time-honored rituals of the school day--taking attendance, presenting a lesson plan, preparing the class for a trip. And then they tried to rate on an objective scale the widely varying styles and practices they had seen.

For many of these would-be state "assessors," the task was daunting.

"Don't panic if you say 'my common vision isn't your common vision,'" advised Carol Sarabun, a Greenwich elementary principal who was serving as a trainer. "There may be a point where you wonder if you know teaching at all."

The intensive 50-hour training course was designed to equip these and other teaching veterans with the means of systematically evaluating beginning teachers' classroom behavior. That process will begin statewide this fall, as Connecticut introduces what is said to be the nation's most rigorous assessment of entry-level teachers.

The new assessment, which includes a strong mentoring and support component, will be administered six times this year to approximately 500 new teachers. Eventually, the state expects to use it to evaluate from 1,200 to 1,600 beginning teachers each year.

The $8-million Beginning Educator Support and Training (best) program, developed and field-tested over the past three years, is seen by officials as a way to turn the certification of teachers into an educational, rather than a bureaucratic, process.

Its implementation comes at a time when national interest in new forms of measuring how teachers perform the complex tasks of their profession is particularly high. Dissatisfaction with current paper-and-pencil tests of teachers, coupled with the national certification system envisioned by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, has spurred calls for more sophisticated ways to investigate the teaching-learning process.

Connecticut's evaluation program is particularly impressive, national observers say, because it does not rely on a single assessment, but on a carefully constructed mix.

"The question you always have to ask is not whether this thing is perfect, but whether it's better than what we're doing," said Marc S. Tucker, director of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

"What we're moving toward is a system in which we want absolutely first-rate people," Mr. Tucker said, "and we want to cultivate them and provide a career path for them to make teaching a lifetime occupation. We're going to have to invest a great deal more in the selection of people at the front end."

Certification Changes

The best program is part of an array of educational reforms mandated by Connecticut's $300-million Educational Enhancement Act of 1986. The act increased teacher salaries in return for requiring increased assessment and continued professional development.

The legislation replaced the state's two-tier system of certification with a three-tier system that includes initial, provisional, and professional-educator certificates.

To be eligible for initial certification, candidates must pass a test of essential reading, writing, and mathematics skills called the Connecticut Competency Exam for Prospective Teachers (concept). Satisfactory completion of the test is required for admittance to a Connecticut teacher-preparation program, and is a prerequisite for certification no matter where a candidate has been educated.

A test of candidates' knowledge of their subject specializations, known as content, also is required for initial certification. The examination is being phased in for 25 subject areas.

Initial certification is valid for one year, during which beginning teachers participate in the best program.

Individuals who successfully complete the best program are granted a provisional certificate valid for eight years. During that time, to gain a professional-educator certificate, teachers must complete 30 hours of college-level study. In addition, to maintain their final certificates, teachers must complete nine units of continuing education every five years.

Mentoring Component

The best program focuses on teachers' ability to manage their classrooms, instruct, and gauge student progress. It aims at giving those being evaluated the feedback and support needed to raise their performance to the required standard.

Each beginning teacher is paired with a trained mentor teacher who acts as a resource and a role model, in addition to familiarizing the new teacher with the 15 "Connecticut Teaching Competencies" that undergird the classroom evaluations. (See box on this page.)

Teachers who do not pass the best assessment may be eligible for a second year of coaching, with the approval of their superintendent and the education commissioner.

By shifting the emphasis from testing to observing classroom behavior, the state hopes primarily to enhance the environment for learning.

"We have to see an improvement in student achievement--we have to," stressed Gerald N. Tirozzi, the state's commissioner of education. "If we don't, we'll have to look at the whole process. The proof is in the pudding."

Impact on Teacher Training

Because the high-stakes enterprise of certification is linked to the six assessments, the best program is expected to push higher-education institutions to emphasize the skills essential to passing them.

"It's not a hidden agenda that we're trying to drive reform of teacher-education programs," said Cynthia Jorgensen, director of the best program.

Representatives from every teacher-education program in Connecticut have been through the assessor training. Cecilia Welna, dean of the college of education, nursing, and health professions at the University of Hartford, described the training program held here Aug. 7-11 as "an eye-opener."

"A lot of the things Connecticut is doing will give us good feedback on the job we're doing preparing future teachers," she said of the state's new-teacher induction package. "We've been constantly changing the curriculum to satisfy changes in the state."

Connecticut has been a leader, with California, in the movement to foster broader evaluative techniques for teachers. The two states joined the National Governors' Association in providing the initial funding for the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, now housed at the headquarters of the Council of Chief State School Officials in Washington.

To provide a gauge of more in-depth knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy, Connecticut is now working with California to develop assessments using "semi-structured interviews" in 24 fields. The tests, which are expected to be developed and included in the best program by 1992, would be administered in an assessment center.

The interviews will allow inquiry into "what a teacher knows about the subject and whether the teacher can translate it" into practice, explained Raymond L. Pecheone, chief of the state education department's bureau of research and teacher assessment.

No 'One Best Method'

For individual classroom teachers, the best assessor-training program has become an attractive form of professional development, one that offers a rare chance to talk in depth about their profession.

As those attending the program here discovered, learning to use the assessment instrument involves delving deeply into the central issue of what makes a good teacher.

Stepping back from familiar behavior to evaluate instruction objectively, they said, often called into question some of their own prejudices and long-standing practices.

"That's the kind of discussion we never have about teaching," said Ms. Sarabun, the Greenwich principal who is serving as a trainer. "What is it you're seeing, and is it acceptable or not?"

Each of the videotaped vignettes they saw here illustrated one of the 10 indicators of effective teaching evaluated in the best assessment.

The indicators are backed by a body of research on teaching practices that enhance student learning, according to the assessment's developers. Included in them are such considerations as whether a teacher creates a positive learning environment, engages all students in the lesson, clearly articulates the lesson content, and accurately presents the subject matter at an appropriate level of difficulty.

Assessors are taught to look for patterns of behavior, rather than for whether the teacher is using "one best method" of instruction.

One tape that particularly impressed trainees here illustrated the effective handling of classroom "routines and transitions."

A 6th-grade social-studies teacher was shown checking homework and taking attendance while his students worked on answering a problem written on the blackboard.

The students quickly settled into their assigned task as the teacher completed two normally time-consuming classroom routines. The vignette lasted just three minutes.

Another vignette showed a far different scene--a teacher telling her class of bilingual, special-education students to get their coats and books for a trip to the school library.

Some of her students followed the directions, others did not. The teacher coaxed and corrected them, and the classroom transition lasted approximately seven minutes.

These contrasting scenes illustrated a central challenge for assessors: conducting a fair evaluation of a teacher while taking into account the special conditions in a particular classroom.

"One thing that is very, very difficult for assessors is to separate their own standards from those they see out in the field," explained Ronald Perrault, a trainer who is vice principal of a junior-high school. "You've got to develop a tolerance for the different levels."

Context Emphasized

To provide a fairer picture of performance, assessors will be given contextual information before beginning their observations. Teachers will complete a form describing the learning objectives for the class period, the activities that will occur, what materials will be used, and how the instruction will be arranged.

The form also includes information on how the lesson fits in with what has been taught before and what will be taught next. And the teacher is given an opportunity to mention any non-instructional details that may affect the classroom climate.

One teacher in the videotapes, for example, explained that the classroom he was using was too small for the number of students, and that, as a result, some had to sit with their backs to him.

Before each session, assessors will also conduct a pre-observation interview with the teacher to clarify any points made on the information form. A similar interview will be done after the observation to give the teacher a chance to describe any changes made in the lesson plan and why they were made.

'Get As Much As You Can'

Participants here identified as the most difficult part of the assessor training learning to "script" their classroom observations. Trainers urged them to "get as much as you can."

That is done, they were taught, by writing down everything said and done in the classroom during the lesson. At periodic intervals, assessors must also count the number of students on- and off-task.

Exact scripting is essential, the trainers explained, for gathering as much evidence as possible for later analysis. Following the observations, assessors use their scripts to document how the teacher met or failed to meet the components of the Connecticut Competency Instrument.

They categorize the evidence drawn from their scripts as either positive or negative and use it to support a final conclusion on each of the instrument's indicators.

'Holistic' Approach

Although the assessment's goal is objectivity, the process by design relies heavily on an assessor's own professional judgment.

According to Mr. Pecheone, the chief of the state education department's bureau of research and teacher assessment, work with focus groups during the assessment's development and piloting stage "forced us to go into much more holistic measurement, because it's the only way to make effective judgments."

"You can't simply quantify this in a generic list," he explained, ''you have to rely on people's experience and understanding."

To date, Connecticut has trained 650 assessors. Each beginning teacher will be evaluated by two teachers, two administrators, and two state assessors, who might be retired teachers, representatives of higher education, or teachers and administrators on leave from their districts.

According to Ms. Jorgensen, the director of the best program, the state plans to have each teacher observed by an assessor who has taught the same subject or grade level as the teacher being evaluated.

After receiving their training, assessor candidates must conduct practice observations and correctly score two juried videotapes in order to participate in the program.

Lee S. Shulman, who has conducted pioneering research into the assessment of teachers at Stanford University, said Connecticut "has made tremendous strides."

The most distinctive facet of the state's program, according to Mr. Shulman, lies in its development of the subject-matter assessments, which reflect the Stanford research.

But while the classroom observations are more sophisticated than any methods currently being used, Mr. Shulman said he had been concerned that they "are primarily generic and still use the same observation scale for the entire gamut of grades and content areas."

However, the state's decision to match the assessors' subject areas and grade levels to those of the teachers being observed reduces the chance that the assessments will become superficial, he noted.

"If they train the observers to bring to bear their content understanding in the analysis of teaching, then I think they will have made a major step in right direction," he said.

Ironically, learning to critically evaluate beginning teachers has proven hardest for school administrators, several trainers said. Administrators are accustomed to judging and correcting teacher behavior, not to stepping back and observing it dispassionately.

"You can't help thinking in terms of supporting the teacher," explained Anthony Kula, a retired administrator who is training to be an assessor. "Now you just have to be analytical without being supportive."

Mr. Kula described his decision to become a best assessor as a desire to contribute something to the field in which he spent his professional life.

"I make the parallel of a beginning teacher and a 1st-grader," he said. "The beginning year for each is the most critical."

Vol. 09, Issue 02, Pages 1, 21

Published in Print: September 13, 1989, as In Connecticut, Moving Past Pencil and Paper: Teachers EvaluatedOn Class Behavior
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