Teaching Profession

Evaluating Online Teachers Is Largely a Virtual Task

August 09, 2005 4 min read
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When administrators of virtual schools evaluate a teacher, they can’t walk out of their offices, stroll into the classroom, and take a seat at the back to observe the day’s lesson. But they can go online and get megabytes of vital information about the teacher.

Such data include how often and how long the teacher spends online on any given day, the contents of e-mail messages and phone calls, the teacher’s online gradebook, student and parent feedback, and archived, interactive whiteboard discussions.

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Table: Cyber Critiques

“Teachers are in a fishbowl when they work online—it’s not like next Tuesday the administrator is going to come in, and that day you’re onstage,” said Jeff Murphy, an instructional leader at the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School, the nation’s largest state-sponsored online school, which served more than 21,000 students from Florida and other states in 2004-05.

“I can go [online] … and see everything the teachers do for a whole year if I want to,” Mr. Murphy said.

Technology has not only bridged physical distances; its ability to log large amounts of data—accessible with the click of a button—has made the evaluation process more thorough and useful, as well as transparent, say education administrators who evaluate the online teachers.

Some add that the evaluation of online teachers tends to be more formalized and business-oriented than that of their colleagues in traditional schools. For instance, a principal in a brick-and-mortar public school may evaluate a teacher at the end of the school year based on a handful of classroom observations throughout the year, a standardized checklist of goals, and student outcomes. In contrast, a virtual-school administrator may also “look” over a teacher’s shoulder by checking e-mail and comments he or she sends students, how often a teacher updates the class Web page, and other online information.

The Michigan Virtual High School, for example, encourages teachers to respond to student e-mail within 24 hours, and to post student test scores online within three days, said Robert Currie, the executive director of the Lansing-based school, which served about 5,000 students in 2004-05.

Constant monitoring is important and benefits both teachers and students, agreed Nicholas A. Wilson, the communications director for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or eCOT, which serves more than 7,000 elementary and secondary students in Ohio.

Mr. Wilson pointed out that if an administrator notices a problem during one of those online observations, he or she can take steps immediately to help the teacher fix the problem, and consequently help students learn better.

“If you’re just evaluating at the end of the year,” he said, “well, then it’s too late to do anything about those students.”

‘Keeps You on Your Toes’

While a virtual-school administrator’s ability to see everything a teacher does online may appear Orwellian, some online educators say such access does not seem overly intrusive.

Heather L. Perkins, a Florida Virtual School teacher who teaches high school English, said she’s not bothered that administrators shadow her online.

“It sort of keeps you on your toes,” she said from her home in Lakeland, Fla., where she works. “You’re careful of your tone in your e-mails and in the feedback you’re giving students.”

Brent Dearbaugh, the principal of eCOT High School, said the online monitoring is not punitive, but is meant to support and help a teacher.

“We are not trying to sneak up on anybody,” he said. “Our goal is to make everyone better.”

Baltimore-based Connections Academy, a for-profit company that operates K-9 virtual schools in 10 states, takes that businesslike evaluation model one step further. Teachers are eligible for a 5 percent annual bonus, dependent on their individual performance and that of the school overall.

“We really believe that if you’re going to evaluate someone, there has to be something behind it,” said Steven Guttentag, the chief education officer of Connections Academy.

Some of the performance metrics are teacher communication skills, parent satisfaction, adequate yearly progress, and meeting yearly goals.

It’s worth noting, however, that Connections Academy operates differently from most other online schools. In other virtual schools, teachers typically work from home offices; Connections Academy teachers and administrators work under one roof.

“There’s an incredible amount of visibility in what we do,” Mr. Guttentag said. “The principal can walk around, listen to teachers on the phone, and watch them working.”

Under a Microscope

Rob Weil, the deputy director of educational issues for the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers, is skeptical about the rosy picture such administrators are painting of online teacher evaluations. He calls some of their claims “unsubstantiated.” Mr. Weil says research must be done to gauge its effectiveness.

Online teacher evaluation is still a work in progress, said William R. Thomas, the educational technology director for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. The SREB published a 2003 study on high-quality online teaching, which provided a list for how online teachers should be evaluated.

While some virtual schools have a model firmly in place, he said, others are still working on their evaluation processes. He said the evaluation models many virtual schools are adopting seem to be more comprehensive than the ones most traditional schools use.

That’s because online learning is still new, and people may be wary about a school that exists primarily in cyberspace. “Online learning is still under a microscope,” Mr. Thomas said. “These programs know that, so as a consequence they’re doing a lot of detailed evaluation.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as Evaluating Online Teachers Is Largely a Virtual Task

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