Facing some inconvenient truths about reforming teacher evaluations

(Brentt Brown, senior writer at Pivot Learning Partners, co-authored this post.)

Good teaching matters. Yet most teacher evaluations are compliance-driven checklists that have little or no impact on teaching and learning. The question is not whether teacher evaluation should be improved, but what the goals of the new processes we seek should be.

The received wisdom is that better evaluations would provide teachers with useful feedback and also improve decision making about tenure and retention. Critics also note that in a better system, evaluations would be more frequent, more focused on evidence of student learning, more effective at sorting teachers into multiple performance categories, and more valid, in that evaluators would be highly trained. All of these are worthy goals, but hardly inevitable ones. Not only are they expensive, but they fail to address the realities of the current approach to teacher evaluation. Here are some inconvenient truths that reformers of teacher evaluation must address.

  • Districts treat teacher evaluation as first and foremost a tool to remove a truly weak teacher. The resulting process is highly scripted because it is used to build a legal case in the event it is needed. While districts believe in the value of feedback and coaching for teachers, it is not clear that formal evaluation – with all of its legal constraints – is the best tool for this purpose.
  • Districts rarely remove teachers, in large part because of the high price tag. Better evaluation doesn’t change this, and those who believe that better evaluation processes will lead to more weak teachers being dismissed aren’t being realistic.
  • California has close to the highest ratio of teachers to administrators in the nation, which means that school principals are ridiculously overloaded. A better evaluation process won’t end the checklist approach if principals are the people doing the evaluating.
  • Staff development budgets for teachers have been slashed, and it may not make sense to invest heavily in training teacher evaluators when we cannot afford to train the teachers.
  • In the past, many large urban districts rarely opted not to tenure a teacher, and this led to granting tenure to some weak teachers. In the vast majority of cases, this was a reaction to a chronic teacher shortage. If you can’t staff your classrooms, you will tenure the folks you’ve got. The current hiring climate will change this situation without a better teacher evaluation process.

I believe that better teacher evaluation is worth working on, but we need to rethink the goals.

What if the goal of teacher evaluation were to communicate and foster a shared vision of excellence, one that would guide and inspire teachers? This is the starting point for the North Bay Training Collaborative for Strengthening Teacher and Principal Evaluation, a project of Pivot Learning Partners, funded by the Full Circle Fund, which brings together teams from almost a dozen districts to take on this question. The process that Pivot Learning has used with this group of districts – and that it is using with others around the state – includes:

  • Recognizing that redesigning teacher evaluations can be contentious and that teachers and union representatives must be involved;
  • Challenging teams to study and learn from both research and examples from districts around the country;
  • Encouraging districts to develop their own vision of teaching excellence;
  • Keeping the idea of evidence of student learning on the table, while promoting a broader discussion about what would constitute evidence that students were learning rigorous content. This approach leads to a serious consideration of multiple measures instead of a dead-end discussion about test scores and the statistics behind value-added approaches;
  • Acknowledging that if useful feedback to teachers is the goal, then the most useful feedback will always come from other teachers, not from an administrator. This means that the vision of excellence and rubrics associated with it must be used broadly in the district by teachers as well as administrators.

It is too soon to determine what will come of the collaborative and inclusive approach suggested above, or for that matter from the more scripted approach being taken in districts receiving federal school improvement grants (SIGs). What is notable is how different the conversation sounds – more cautious perhaps, but also nuanced – when the North Bay Collaborative meets than when teacher evaluation is discussed by policymakers or in the media. This disconnect is hardly new, but in this case what it signals matters.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive  director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.