General questions about teacher evaluation

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What is the purpose of teacher evaluation?

Teacher evaluation serves two essential purposes: quality assurance and promoting professional learning.

  • For quality assurance, educators must be able to ensure parents and the larger community that they are well equipped to do the essential work of educating children. As an essential component of an education system, the quality of teaching must be high.
  • For promoting professional learning, a highly evolved system produces information about teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and can therefore point the teacher toward areas for growth.

There is, inevitably, some tension between these two purposes; a system of accountability can feel like an “inspection” to teachers, while one entirely focused on professional learning can result in under performing teachers not receiving important information about their teaching. My recommendation in resolving this tension is to establish clear standards as to the level of teaching expected for teachers with different levels of experience, and once teachers have demonstrated that level of proficiency, concentrate all the efforts in the system to promoting ongoing learning.

How should teachers be evaluated?

There are two principal indicators of teacher effectiveness: teacher practices and the impact of teachers’ work on student learning. Most evaluation systems use a combination of these indicators, in what they call “multiple measures,” which sometimes includes student perception surveys.

My area of expertise is in establishing teacher practices that are found to produce high levels of student learning; that’s what the Framework for Teaching represents. There are many challenges inherent in the use of value added test score data to evaluate the effectiveness of individual teachers, but I’ll leave those challenges to the measurement experts.

How are each of the domains of the Framework for Teaching assessed?

Domains 2 and 3 of the Framework describe classroom practice, and can be assessed through observations of teaching. These observations can (and I think should) be supplemented by samples of student work, which also provide another indication of student engagement in challenging work.

Domains 1 and 4 represent “behind the scenes” work, important to good teaching, but not directly observable in the classroom. Observers can, occasionally, obtain indirect evidence of Domain 1 (Planning and Preparation) during an observation, but more direct evidence is obtained from planning documents, and a pre-observation (planning) conference. As for Domain 4 (Professional Responsibilities), there is rarely evidence for that in an observation, simply because those activities don’t happen in the classroom. Domain 4 is best assessed through the examination of artifacts that illustrate the teacher’s skill in the different components of the Domain. And while Domain 1 can, if there’s time to do so, be discussed in reference to every (announced) observation, I recommend that the components of Domain 4 be assessed annually.

How can teacher performance be fairly assessed by evaluators who are not experts in the subject the teacher is teaching?

This is a very challenging question, and one without an easy answer. It is certainly true that many aspects of teaching (particularly those in Domain 2) are generic, and can be observed in a class regardless of the subject being taught, and by an observer without content expertise. However, it’s also true that in advanced subjects, or at the higher levels of performance in all subjects, that content and content-specific pedagogy matter; if observers don’t have that expertise, it’s difficult for them to be aware of the nuances in a teacher’s practice.

If a school is fortunate enough to have content-area supervisors available, those individuals can be enormously helpful in observing teachers, and reviewing planning documents, simply for the accuracy of the content and the wisdom on content-specific pedagogies. If such individuals are not available, then I recommend a conversation with the teacher with questions designed to elicit evidence of expertise, such as, in world languages, what approaches they have found effective in helping their students acquire a good accent, or how this topic in science is related to the one they are exploring with their students last week.

Why is training (for both teachers and evaluators) important?

Training in the Framework for Teaching (and conducted, if possible, in groups with both teachers and administrators present) serves to establish a common language about good teaching, and invites important conversations regarding practice. The importance of the common language cannot be over emphasized; it’s one of the aspects of adopting the FFT that many educators value the most. Teachers say things like “Finally, I know what my principal is looking for in an observation!” And the common language enables teachers to engage in meaningful discussion both with their colleagues and with supervisors.

Why should evaluators be certified? How can this be done?

In high stakes teacher evaluation, evaluators must make consequential decisions about teachers, decisions that could affect ratings, compensation, or even their continued employment. For that reason, it’s essential that evaluators demonstrate that they can evaluate performance accurately and consistently, and base those judgments on evidence. These skills can be both taught and tested, and in my view a fair system demands that evaluators pass, in effect, a test to demonstrate their skill. After all, it’s impossible get a driver’s license in any state without passing a test; it does not make sense that school evaluators should be able to make high stakes decisions about teachers without demonstrating that they can do so accurately.

A related question relates to the matter of how long such certification is valid, and whether evaluators should periodically engage in recalibration exercises. Research on this point has been limited up until now, although we have common sense to guide us. Common sense would suggest that evaluators should recalibrate at least annually, and recertify once every three years.

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