School & District Management Opinion

Five Lessons for Creating Effective Teacher Evaluation

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 21, 2016 4 min read
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California has an opportunity to get teacher evaluation right, or at least better. That shouldn’t be hard. The current law is 45 years old, and everyone agrees that it doesn’t work.

So what’s the catch? The typical response is that teacher unions stand in the way of meaningful change. In a recent Atlantic article, Thomas Toch points to a new battle over teacher evaluation now that federal law trims the activism of the U.S. Department of Education. State and local education leaders will “surely face strong union pressure to return to the superficial evaluation systems of the past,” he writes.

But what if there were tough-minded and meaningful evaluation systems that local teacher unions helped design and implement? A new report by Daniel Humphrey, Julia Koppich and Juliet Tiffany-Morales both describes and draws lessons from three California districts where teacher evaluation feeds a system of professional growth: Poway Unified, San Juan Unified, and San Jose Unified. They’ll write about each of these in more detail in subsequent ‘On California’ posts.

Here, I want to concentrate on the lessons I draw from the report:

First, purpose matters. Districts started to fix their existing evaluation system; they finished by changing its purpose. As the report notes, “just improving the observation skills of the principals or increasing the amount of evidence used to measure a teacher’s performance was not enough. They needed to reset the system so that its purpose was to support teachers in their professional growth and improvement, rather than just measure performance.”

Second, naming or branding matters. As the report says in its introduction, “‘evaluation’ is a loaded word.” Both teachers and principals, it notes, “view evaluation as a tool to remove ineffective teachers, but not to improve all teachers’ professional practice.”

Teachers resist, not because they want to protect the ineffective teachers. Teachers loathe ineffective colleagues. They resist because the evaluation system is so flawed that even effective teachers fear that they will be unfairly caught up. As Toch notes, trying to craft new measurement models on tight timelines often results in “nonsensical situation like gym teachers being evaluated by fourth-grade reading scores.” And the system does nothing to help teachers who are not in the “grossly ineffective” catchment basin but whose practice could be improved.

Third, unions matter. All three of the professional growth models came into being because they were championed by the local teacher union. Poway is affiliated with the California Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers nationally. San Jose and San Juan are affiliated with the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the National Education Association.

Each of the three unions took on the hard work of developing an evaluation and professional growth system voluntarily because leaders thought it was the right thing to do and because they were sufficiently trusted to gain support from the rank and file.

But unions matter in the negative, too. The use of union political power to block substantive change in evaluation programs has been more in evidence than union development of programs that combine growth and evaluation. Particularly for the CTA, which represents the vast majority of teachers and districts in the state, the creation of robust, teacher initiated, evaluation programs represents a huge opportunity.

Fourth, substance matters. Talk of professional growth makes lots of folks in the legislature and in the civil rights communities anxious, as if “growth” were just another way of sidestepping the hard problem of removing poorly performing teachers. But a close look at these three systems reveals intolerance for bad teachers and bad teaching. Koppich and I have written about collaborative systems and peer review for decades, and there is no doubt that they can be tough minded.

Fifth, time matters. New evaluation/professional growth systems take time to develop, pilot, and tweak. All three districts detailed in the report lavished time and resources to train principals and teachers and change the culture of evaluation in their districts.

But the political world is impatient. California has adopted new standards, it has a new financing system that puts that capacity to support an evaluation system in the hands of local school leaders, and it will soon have specific accountability measures. linked to the new federal law. An unprecedented window of opportunity is open for at least a few more months.

I’m hopeful that linking professional growth and evaluation will find advocates and champions within the legislature, among school administrators, and within the unions. If it doesn’t, someone else’s idea about teacher evaluation will become law.

(Over the next few days Julia Koppich and Dan Humphrey will provide short descriptions of each of the professional learning systems detailed in their report.)

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