There are some questions every school leader should be able to answer: Are my teachers helping their students learn? Who are the outstanding teachers I need to fight hard to keep? Which teachers aren’t meeting my expectations? How can I help my good teachers become great?
As the superintendent of one of the nation’s largest school districts, I believe helping our campus leaders answer these questions is the most important part of my job. After all, decades of research show that nothing we can do to accelerate student learning matters more than ensuring a great teacher leads every classroom.
Unfortunately, the teacher-evaluation systems that should help principals answer such questions are often useless. Most evaluation systems rate nearly all teachers “satisfactory,” based on infrequent and cursory classroom observations, and they rarely consider how much students are actually learning.
The staff-review process helped principals hold their teachers to high expectations, but, just as important, it helped us hold principals accountable for being instructional leaders, not just building managers."
Until very recently, that was the case in Houston, where I lead the 204,000-student school district. We were using an evaluation system that rated virtually everyone “proficient” or better and offered teachers almost no useful feedback. For half our teachers, the system didn’t require even a single formal classroom observation. Not surprisingly, when we circulated a survey in early 2010 asking teachers and principals what they thought of the system, most told us it wasn’t helpful.
After the results came in, I pledged to work with teachers, principals, and the rest of the Houston school community to build a better evaluation and development system as part of the strategic plan adopted by our board of education, and with support from our lead philanthropic funder, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which is also based in Houston.
But we knew this collaborative design process and the preparations to implement a new system would take nearly a year. Meanwhile, school leaders had important decisions to make right away—such as determining which teachers should have their contracts renewed—and teachers were not getting the feedback they deserved as professionals.
So we asked ourselves, what can we do right now to get a better understanding of teacher performance and to encourage principals to launch the honest conversations that had not been occurring in the past? And, how can we establish a performance-driven culture that our high-performing teachers will embrace as helpful, rather than punitive?
The solution was to create an interim staff-review process that helped principals focus on effective teaching straightaway, even as we were building a new formal evaluation system for the long term. Staff review was designed to help school leaders become better informed about teacher performance by requiring more regular observations, focused conversations, and the use of existing student-achievement data.
The staff-review process was rolled out in two phases. We launched the first phase in spring 2010 by asking principals to review all the available information about their teachers—typically, observation results, student academic-growth data, and other information about student learning as it related to subject and grade level. The principals were then asked to group each teacher into one of four categories (low-performing, developing, proficient, or highly effective). These were not formal ratings, but an informal tool intended to get principals thinking about the composition of their instructional teams.
This process didn’t replace formal evaluation ratings or give principals new powers. It simply provided principals with a structured opportunity to reflect on their teachers’ work and make smarter decisions about contracts, professional development, and retention—important choices they already had to make every year outside the formal evaluation process.
In fall 2010, we rolled out the second phase of the staff-review process, which focused on providing teachers with more meaningful feedback. For the first time, school leaders collaborated with teachers to create Individualized Professional Development Plans, which spelled out teachers’ goals for the year and the support their schools would provide. To help track progress toward these goals, principals conducted at least one in-depth classroom observation.
These were not radical changes. They didn’t require any additional money or much lead time. They didn’t require legislation or contract changes. We were simply asking principals to step out of their offices more often, pay closer attention to their teachers’ performance, and talk to teachers about what was happening in their classrooms.
These immediate, common-sense steps were a vast improvement over the evaluation system we were working to replace. The staff-review process helped principals hold their teachers to higher expectations, but, just as important, it helped us hold principals accountable for being instructional leaders, not just building managers. For the first time, we were requiring our school leaders to distinguish great teaching from good, good from fair, and fair from poor, and insisting that they help all teachers chart a path to take their professional skills to the next level.
The results were immediate and dramatic. In a typical year under our old formal evaluation system, 96 percent of teachers earned the top two ratings, and less than 1 percent earned the lowest rating. The new staff-review process yielded much more realistic results: Last school year, 24 percent of teachers were informally considered “highly effective,” 50 percent were “proficient,” 21 percent were “developing,” and 5 percent were “low-performing.”
This information helped principals make more-informed decisions, especially regarding contract renewals and retention. Today, following last year’s staff-review process, 92 percent of those “highly effective” teachers remain with the district—about 2,600 out of 2,800. In addition, Houston chose not to renew contracts for many of the educators identified as “low-performing;" fewer than half those teachers—270 out of 599—are still in our classrooms.
The staff-review process also gave teachers and school leaders an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions about classroom performance and to use multiple measures to gauge classroom success—critical pieces of any rigorous evaluation system, including the new system our educators helped us design.
Nothing can substitute for a rigorous, comprehensive teacher-evaluation system (we launched a new, formal appraisal and development system in Houston this fall), but our staff-review process provided important steppingstones. Houston’s experience shows that even the largest districts can make substantial, immediate improvements to the way they understand and act on teachers’ performance in the classroom—even before they overhaul their formal evaluation systems. It means schools don’t have to wait to make smarter decisions about their instructional teams, and educators don’t have to wait for the regular feedback they need to do their best work. Most importantly, it means students don’t have to wait for more-effective teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as In Houston, a Steppingstone To Better Teacher Evaluations