Strategies to make the evaluation process meaningful

Note: This article was written for the NJEA Review and appears in the September issue. It makes specific reference to teacher evaluation as written into NJ regulation … however, teachers across the US are wrestling with these issues. Although the regulations may vary, the critical concerns do not.

I left the advertising industry to become a teacher. The transition brought an intensive year of graduate school, student teaching and credentialing exams. In a very short time, I went from a luxurious office in Manhattan to a roomful of five-year-olds, just outside Philadelphia. Culture shock is a polite way of describing that change.

As I acclimated myself to the demands of teaching, friends and colleagues from my previous life in advertising would ask about my new job. When I explained that I was teaching kindergarten, the response was almost always the same: “Oh! You must be having so much fun!”

Well, yes, I enjoyed the work. But that’s not what they meant. In their minds, I was sitting on the floor with adorable kids, playing with building blocks, singing songs, and skipping home at 3:25 every afternoon. In reality, I was learning what experienced educators know very well: teaching is an unbelievably demanding job. It is physically exhausting. It is emotionally draining. And it’s incredibly challenging on an intellectual level.

The reaction from folks outside of education is woefully predictable. Teaching kindergartners is intellectually challenging? Well, yes, if you do it right. It relies on knowing content in four major disciplines deeply enough to develop relevant objectives for five-year-olds, while understanding pedagogy deeply enough to relate complex information to young children. My story uncovers a fundamental and crucial problem: those with limited experience in education have very little understanding of the complexity and demands faced by teachers and school leaders. In fact, many policy-makers and public critics believe they know quite a lot about teaching simply because they once went to school. “How hard can it be?” they muse. Sadly, these are many of the same folks who have developed policies around teacher evaluation.

The 2013-14 school year was challenging and frustrating for many educators as the state rushed to implement new evaluation systems too fast and failed to provide the necessary resources. As we begin a new school year, we can continue to work to correct the flaws in the system. At the same time, however, this September provides another opportunity to focus on ways that a thoughtful evaluation process can help us strengthen our skills and ultimately boost student learning.

So, what exactly should you do? Take the following actions so that the evaluation system can be successfully implemented in a fair and productive manner.

1. Deeply understand the model

Everyone—that means everyone—in the system needs to fully understand the evaluative criteria and rubrics that will be used to assess practice. It is not uncommon for districts to focus training on supervisors or a handful of teachers who are expected to inform their colleagues. It is not sufficient to simply select a model (whether it is Danielson, Marshall, Marzano, McREL, Stronge, etc.) and have an in-service day; all teachers and administrators must learn the model and the rubrics deeply enough to apply them in practice. Whether using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or Bloom’s Taxonomy, applying concepts is a higher-level activity. Therefore, it is not enough to have basic recall of the model and rubrics. It must be something all participants can make meaning with, and relate to, their complex work.

2. Become well versed in the process

While every school district must adhere to policies defined by state regulation, there are still a number of procedural decisions that should be made by the District Evaluation Advisory Committee (DEAC). The committee must include the superintendent, a special education administrator, a parent, a member of the district school board, one or more central office administrators, and representatives from each school level. In addition, the NJDOE website recommends that districts consider expanding this minimum requirement to include more educators whose involvement is important to the success of the evaluation system implementation, such as teacher leaders, association representatives and other teaching staff.

Members of the DEAC should work together to make important procedural decisions beyond the state regulations. For example, after a teacher is observed, will data be shared and discussed prior to assessment? Does the teacher have an opportunity to reflect on practice and contribute to the observation data with meaningful and relevant information? This is considered a best practice in the area of observations, but is often not specified in a district’s procedures around evaluation. Without establishing consistent and well-communicated procedures, teachers and supervisors face in- consistent practices that undermine the potential of an evaluation system to positively impact teaching and learning.

3. Get clarification on the nuances between “onstage” and “offstage”

All models outline teaching practices to be evaluated. All models rely on classroom observations to gather data about those practices. But all of the models also specify behind-the-scenes work that teachers do outside of their interactions with students. These essential characteristics of a teacher’s job are critically important in an overall evaluation. However, the tradition of relying solely on what can be observed during classroom instruction has left most schools woefully unprepared to determine how to evaluate an educator’s behind-the-scenes work.

The DEAC should make recommendations about the assessment of teachers’ planning skills and professional obligations. Teachers need clear descriptions of the artifacts or elements that constitute data representing their behind-the-scenes work. Along with those descriptions, exemplars of effective and highly effective practices help to ensure consistency in rating these critical aspects of a teachers’ work. According to state regulations, these critical clarifications must be conveyed to everyone in the system by Oct. 1 of each year.

4. Learn about the role of student achievement

Student growth objectives (SGOs) should be one of the most teacher-driven aspects of the evaluation system. Too often, this was not the case last year. According to the regulations, they are developed by the teacher in collaboration with the supervisor. While a principal has the final approval of SGOs, it is important to note that the process must begin at the teacher level. SGOs are meant to reflect the growth and performance of a specific group of students, based on their particular abilities and academic needs. It is inappropriate to set goals that are district, school, or even department-wide, since such goals would not reflect the needs of the students for whom a teacher is responsible.

There are two important steps within the SGO process that proved challenging last year; the first involves assessment. The law defines multiple measures as both formal and informal measures and includes in the definition examples of performance assessments, portfolio projects, problem-solving protocols, and teacher- based assessments. These should not be overlooked in favor of standardized or published assessments, particularly if those do not accurately reflect the curriculum being taught throughout the year.

The second step relates to developing baseline information. Since it is important to have an accurate understanding of students in order to develop meaningful goals, a simple pretest given the first week of school often yields insufficient information for setting an appropriate goal. Rather, a collection of information, including grades in past classes, assessments of prerequisite skills, scores on assessments in late September and October, some measure of student engagement including homework completion, class participation, and attendance might all be used to develop goals for a group of students. Best practice would indicate collecting data from multiple sources in order to set goals for students that are both ambitious and achievable.

5. Find your professional voice

We know our students deserve great teachers. Teachers and school leaders deserve a system designed to foster greatness. This can only be accomplished with a collaborative effort to create systems of transparency and fairness. The purpose of teacher evaluation models is to provide common vocabulary and expectations that put a focus on high quality instruction — highlighting it when it’s observed and supporting it when it needs improvement.

Teachers and school leaders must participate in dialogues for learning. This means that the data gathered during an observation or a teacher portfolio of behind-the-scenes work are opportunities to have meaningful conversations about teaching — and not just as fodder for a final “score.” Working together, we can make the evaluation process work for us, and more importantly, for our students.