What’s Next After Teacher Evaluations?

cross posted at Education is My Life

The spotlight has been shining on Teacher Evaluation reform for several years now – and not without considerable furor over the use of student test scores and reliability (or unreliability) of supervisors. Underlying the hand-wringing and political posturing is an undeniable truth: the things that get measured are the things that get done … and it is about time that we consider how to accurately assess and support the complex work that teachers do.

In much of my work with teachers and administrators, most are eager to embrace processes that acknowledge the challenges of teaching and provide support for professional improvement. However, there is one consistent question that school leaders frequently ask: “Once I observe teachers and we identify areas of strength and areas for focused improvement … how do I support them with information about best practices?”

Therein lies the crux of the matter. We are currently caught up in measurement frenzy – especially for American states receiving Race to the Top funding. But constant data collection and measurement is meaningless until we identify the best practices teachers can employ that will actually change the educational experience for students.

Identifying Best Practices

Instructional strategies, new technologies, high expectations, and rigorous standards can be an overwhelming menu for teachers, when truly there is one fundamental question that should be asked and answered when designing learning experiences for students: will they be cognitively engaged? Simply keeping students busy or delighting them with technological bells and whistles does not insure cognitive engagement.

One of the more definitive explorations of student engagement is Phillip Schlechty’s “Working on the Work” (revised in 2011). Schlechty discusses the relationship between student motivation to pursue challenging work as directly related to the quality of a teacher’s design efforts.

We have now become familiar with the advice that teachers embrace a shift in practice from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” and become facilitators of student learning rather than dispensers of content. However, this raises many questions about how to truly facilitate engaging activities. Schlechty’s list of design qualities can provide direction for teachers to help increase the attentiveness, commitment, and persistence of their students:

  1. Content and Substance – the subjects or topics to be learned should be authentic and meaningful.
  2. Product Focus – the task or activity has relevance and value.
  3. Organization of Knowledge – how work is structured (for example, using a problem-solving or discovery approach) should consider learning styles.
  4. Clear and Compelling Standards – the clarity students have around the work products … do they know what benchmarks they will have to meet?
  5. Protection from Initial Failure – how a teacher conveys that students may take risks in their work without fearing humiliation or negative sanctions.
  6. Affiliation – the opportunity for students to work with someone other than the teacher: peers, family members, other adults, community members, etc.
  7. Affirmation – the opportunity for student work to be shared with a community beyond the classroom.
  8. Choice – the possibility that students have some determination either about what they learn or how they will learn it.
  9. Novelty and Variety – providing a range of media and approaches to the activities assigned to students.
  10. Authenticity – the possibility that learning tasks might be linked to real interests of the students.

Schlechty’s list is a good place to start, but it is ultimately the job of coaches, mentors, and supervisors to hold professional conversations with teachers about instructional design. Rather than brainstorming possible activities, teachers and their mentors can work together to analyze instructional practices, seeking to enhance the qualities that might result in student engagement. Whatever instructional strategy or methodology a teacher employs, the true measure of it as a “best practice” will be in its potential to cognitively engage students in learning.

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