Saturday, October 26, 2019

Taking Back Teacher Evaluations

There's a slowly-rising tide of writing out there focusing on principals and evaluations, quietly returning focus to the idea of making evaluations meaningful.

It's a welcome change, because the status quo for the past over-a-decade has been the junk that disruptors stuck us with, in which teacher "evaluation" meant "slap some Big Standardized Test scores together and call that the teacher evaluation." As many folks pointed out repeatedly, this is a super-crappy way to evaluate teachers. And worse, reformsters were insistent that these crappy evaluations should be used to make employment decisions. Fake junk papers like TNTP's oft-referenced "Widget Effect" were used to justify the idea that schools should be firing teachers whose students got low test scores, and only paying good salaries to teachers whose students get high scores,  and if we could get rid of "tenure" and FILO and just fire our way to excellence then education would be saved.

This was a stupid idea. It was always stupid, it's still stupid, and I look forward to the day when it's like polyester bell-bottoms and pet rocks and people look back at it and ask, "How did anyone ever think this was anything except stupid."

Sadly, that day has not yet arrived. Still, some writers are starting to suggest that teacher evaluations could be reclaimed as useful tools for principals to use to help teachers do better work.

Take, for instance, this piece from the ever-stodgy Education Week, supported in part by the ever-reformy John Arnold Foundation and written by Denise Superville, an assistant editor at EdWeek. "8 Ways to Make Teacher Evaluations Meaningful and Low-Stress" is almost like a relic from another time-line where BS Tests aren't fetishized and "getting rid of bad teachers" is not the primary purpose of evaluation. The list has some good advice.

The first one is actually the most important and the most subversive. What she writes is "Understand your evaluation tool" but what she means is "comply with the state's paperwork but otherwise ignore them." Collect data and "use it to devise an action plan that you, as principal, can take to help your teachers move to the next level." Take what you can use for your own purposes; excellent advice even for this list, which includes some clunkers.

Pre-conference with the teacher before evaluation time; good advice and formally by some states. Likewise, post conferencing (and doing it while you can both remember the class that was observed), is a good idea that is built into the system in some states.

Drive-by observations. This belongs to a general category that can be described as knowing what goes on in your building. If all the principal knows about Mrs. McTeachface is what is seen during the forty minutes of formal observation, that principal is doing a lousy job. In fact, I question why we fetishize the formal observation, anyway. Principals should walk the halls daily, and pop into classrooms daily. I know some teachers hate it, and some principals think they're too busy. Everyone needs to get over it. Job Number One for a principal is to know what is going on in the building. If teachers freak out when you're in their room because they see you so rarely, you are doing a bad job of principalling.

Superville gives what could be some good advice, but the elaboration is terrible. Observe everything-- not just teacher. Look at the classroom, look at how the students are reacting, get a feel for the atmosphere of the room. The principal that Superville quotes offers, "Are they using the academic language that is aligned to the content within the standards?" To which I say, "Dear God, I hope not." Nor should the principal be checking dopey things like "are the anchor standards posted on the wall."

Superville suggests "Find a root cause." Struggling teachers have a host of interlocking issues going on in the classroom. Giving them a long list of fixits will not help. Helping them figure out what the root cause of all these various issues might be. Note from me: classroom discipline problems are almost always a symptom of some other problem. Trying to address them without addressing the root issue is a waste of time. And as anyone who has coached a challenged student teacher can tell you, sometimes those root issues get to real fundamentals, like what the person thinks the job of teaching entails, or how they conceive of the whole learning process. In other words, this is not the kind of stuff that will be settled by a paragraph on paperwork and a fifteen minute conference.

Give teachers a voice. It's kind of sad that we've let the disruptors push us to the point where this has to be said, but so much of modern ed reform has been about deliberately silencing teachers, and the evaluation process has turned into something that is done to teachers, not with them. Evaluation should be a conversation, not a lecture. May I suggest that all principals adopt my "Seven most powerful words in education"-- what can I do to help you?

Superville's last item is her most obvious and most sad-we-have-to-even-say-this-- "Provide opportunities to learn and grow." This has been totally lost in test-based evaluations and their premise that we just fire the bad teachers and go pick some good teachers off the good teacher tree that's growing somewhere. It is better, cheaper, less disruptive and more human to help struggling teachers to learn and grow than to simply can them and holler "next." And here's the most important secret-- All good teachers are trying to learn and grow. Every good teacher I've ever known could tell you five things they are trying to get better at. Teaching is a job that will always require more than you have, so you will spend your entire career trying to perfect the art of doing more with what you've got.

The only evaluation method that matters, the only one that's worth a damn, is one that helps you become a better teacher. Spoiler alert: threats and punishment do not help people become better teachers. And scores on a single standardized test that you are not permitted to see, and which may have been the scores of students you don't have in a subject you don't teach-- these are utterly useless in helping teachers do better work. May we please--please--take teacher evaluation from the useless baseless stupid status quo we've been stuck in for more than a decade.

Two important things to remember about taking evaluation back.

First, Rick Hess's Cage Busting Teacher aside, it's almost impossible for teachers to do this. Not completely impossible, but we're talking about convincing our bosses to change the way they evaluate us, and that's tricky in pretty much any job. It requires a level of trust and communication that not everyone enjoys in their school. At any rate, no teachers get to walk into their evaluation and say, "Nah, I don't think I'm doing it that way this year."

Second, no evaluation is jerk-proof. If your principal is a jerk, there is no system that can keep him from being a jerk to you at evaluation time. One of the selling points of BS Test-based evaluations was that it would be objective in ways that human principals could not be, but all that really meant was that good principals had their hands tied and bad principals still found ways to be jerks.

Teacher evaluation cannot be reduced to hard, objective science any more you can objectively measure how good a spouse or parent someone is. Yes, the folks at the extreme ends of the scale might seem objectively awful or wonderful, but that's not where most people are. Plus, human relationships are very much a factor of the two humans involved. The dream of some scientific measure of the objective swellness or awfulness of an individual teacher is just a dream. It can't be done.

But the job of a principal (or any other manager) is to help her people do their best possible work. And the only useful function for a teacher evaluation is the same-- to help teachers do their best work. It's past time to take teacher evaluations back and make them useful again.

1 comment:

  1. Over my career, anonymous, EOY student surveys have provided me with the only useful evaluation/feedback I ever needed for improvement.

    Mush more interesting and relevant than a common evaluation form used for all teachers by a principal. Here's one example that has stuck with me for decades:

    "Why did you always call on me when you knew I didn't know the answers?"

    Unexpected and unsettling.