It was one of the best lines of the last 2012 presidential debate, even if it wasn’t delivered by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. After much back and forth on education policy and the importance of teachers, moderator Bob Schieffer summed it up: “I think we all love teachers.”
Policymakers and leaders from both sides of the aisle may indeed love teachers, but a major policy push in recent years is for more-stringent performance evaluation for them. Is teacher evaluation just the latest round of hype in education reform? Or is there reason to hope for something better?
There is general agreement in the education community that teacher-evaluation reform is needed, and most teachers support it if done right. Teachers welcome the opportunity for feedback, reflection, and professional conversation on their strengths and weaknesses and better strategies for reaching all students.
Like all professionals, teachers want to improve and succeed. They do not want to work alongside incompetent or uncommitted colleagues, and they value fair, accurate, and meaningful evaluation systems that can help them improve and usher poor performers out of the profession. But if our appreciation of our teachers and our commitment to education as a key to our country’s success are sincere, then we—as policymakers or influencers, community leaders, and as a society—need to do more than reform their evaluation system.
Our work supporting state departments of education through the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders—a national center led by the American Institutes for Research and its partners, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Public Impact, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education—has convinced us that a two-fold approach is needed. First, let’s move the policy dialogue away from thinking of teacher evaluation by itself. Instead, let’s ask how evaluation can be used to deliver the supports, strategies, and resources needed to develop all teachers into their best, most effective professional selves. Second, let’s connect these evaluation and professional-growth systems to a larger talent-management approach featuring well-thought-through supports that states and districts continually assess and revise to keep a pulse on teacher morale, recruitment, development, and retention.
Transitioning teacher-evaluation systems into teacher-professional-growth systems that continually develop teachers’ skills and knowledge requires a culture shift. It means replacing many traditional “sit and get” models of one-shot workshops and one-size-fits-all content presentations with job-embedded, collaborative professional-learning systems aligned to the behaviors, skills, and knowledge that define effective teaching.
These systems should also be tailored to each teacher’s experience level and needs.
A new system like this requires states and districts to think critically about the policies, processes, and personnel needed to promote professional learning through teacher-evaluation activities. Districts will likely need to employ a variety of personnel to deliver professional learning connected to teacher-evaluation tools and targeted to individual teachers, teams, and entire faculties. Instructional coaches, teacher-leaders, peer teachers, and administrators all will play a role in connecting professional learning to teacher evaluation, which means they must become fluent in the language of effective teaching and help teachers use the feedback they get to deepen their understanding of successful practice and how to sharpen their skills.
Let’s move the policy dialogue away from thinking of teacher evaluation by itself."
Districts and states also need to make sure that the data from evaluation systems are high-quality and skill-specific. That way, these data can inform professional learning for individuals, groups of teachers, and entire districts. Districts need to provide educators timely access to the right data and put formal plans and structures in place to maximize use of that information.
We see five fundamental steps—based on research and promising practices—that districts and states can take right away to make growth-oriented teacher evaluation a reality:
• Define the behaviors, knowledge, and skills that describe effective teaching along a continuum of performance. Many states and districts already have performance rubrics that define the skills and knowledge necessary for effective teaching and promote students’ college and career readiness. Use those rubrics to drive communication around new evaluation systems and select professional-learning opportunities.
• Encourage teachers to regularly reflect on their practice. Reflection is one aspect of meaningful, results-oriented deliberate practice. It can increase teachers’ motivation to stick with the process and tackle difficult instructional problems, and in this way encourage reflection throughout the evaluation process.
• Provide regular opportunities for deliberate practice with focused feedback. Refocus professional development by shifting the way districts and schools structure their supports for teachers. Use teacher “in-service” days, coaching resources, and other existing programs to promote instructional practice and make job-embedded professional learning centered on individual teachers’ immediate priorities and needs.
• Provide detailed information and feedback skill by skill to identify opportunities for growth. Encourage evaluators to create a learning-focused evaluation system that provides teachers with high-quality,specific, constructive, and timely feedback. Make feedback clear enough to be acted upon and connected to the work of teaching.
• Recognize and address the variation in teachers’ development trajectories and learning needs. Teacher development is often uneven and nonlinear, so make evaluation systems and professional-learning supports fit specific teacher experience by grade level or subject. For example, a teacher who has taught 2nd grade for eight years might need targeted supports to reach the same performance level after moving to a 5th grade classroom.
At present, most teachers in our country lack high-quality support to improve their practice. And many districts, particularly those that serve high-needs students, aren’t equipped to take a comprehensive approach to developing the majority of their teaching force. We believe this intense focus on teacher evaluation at the federal, state, and local levels provides an unprecedented window of opportunity to reinvent how we support teachers in their profession, while simultaneously helping students achieve.Improving professional-learning opportunities for teachers, while better than the status quo, is necessary but insufficient. New-teacher induction, stronger leadership, better pay, safe and supportive working conditions, more relevant preparation programs, opportunities to lead new projects and initiatives away from the classroom, and more manageable workloads are needed to attract talented people to teaching. Anything less will continue to deprofessionalize teaching.
As the policy du jour, teacher evaluation holds promise. But if we really want our teachers to succeed, let’s invest the time to brainstorm, collaborate, and develop initiatives that go beyond teacher evaluation. Let’s muster the courage to take sometimes controversial stances to invest resources in supporting teaching as a profession even amid budget shortfalls. We urge leaders in states and districts to take the steps we’ve outlined and encourage those leaders who have already begun this difficult work to stay the course. As a new presidential term with new and strengthened educational priorities takes hold, so too should a new phase for teacher-effectiveness policy.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Using Teacher Evaluation to Grow