CHICAGO — Considering how reluctant our public education system is to change, the swiftness with which reform has spread in teacher evaluations is nothing short of breathtaking.
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s “State of the States 2013” report, 35 states and the District of Columbia now require that student achievement be a significant or the most significant factor in teacher evaluations. Additionally, 44 states and D.C. require classroom observations to be incorporated into teacher evaluations and 19 states and the federal district specifically require policies to ensure that teacher evaluation results are used to inform and shape professional development for all instructors.
This is mind-blowing. I completed my last graduate-level education course in 2009 and the only evaluations anyone in my teacher-prep program cared about were those necessary for graduation and employment, along with the pre-tenure evaluations. Once that last evaluation was made, the pressure was off because it was understood that when tenure was won, it would be practically impossible to be removed from the classroom. Thankfully, more school systems are instituting rigorous evaluations to understand how both students and teachers are performing. But, as in teaching, there is also always room for improvement in evaluation methods.
Though some prefer to focus on value-added and merit-pay schemes that so far haven’t definitively improved classroom performance, I want to key in on one recommendation the report makes for making the best use of teacher evaluations: evaluating all teachers. First let’s set the stage. In years past, many teachers have reacted poorly to the idea of more evaluations because they hit at the very core of their identities. A vast majority of teachers don’t see their jobs as just “jobs.” They see themselves as keepers of a flame, giving their all to make the world a better place one child at a time. They usually feel a special calling to mete out social justice — one that often prioritizes good intentions over skill as an educator or mastery of a content area.
Therefore teachers think there can be no suitable evaluations — if all teachers are fundamentally good, then their craft cannot be adequately graded with even the best rubric. Headlines about those singled out for improvement led to all teachers feeling sorely undervalued. And then there was all the news about statistics showing that only a little over a quarter of teacher-preparation programs restrict admissions to students in the top half of their class.
So in return for their many selfless sacrifices — often in communities where poverty and scant parent support makes teaching more difficult — teachers felt as though they were being unfairly painted with a broad brush of underachievement. But as the National Council on Teacher Quality suggests, there must be rigorous annual evaluations and subsequent supports for improvement for all teachers.
“Teacher evaluation policy should reflect the purpose of helping all teachers improve, not just low-performers,” the report says. “And if teacher effectiveness evaluations aim to help all teachers get better — including going from good to great — then all teachers need feedback.”
Furthermore, the report notes, school-wide professional development must be tied to needs identified in performance evaluations for all teachers, not just those with low ratings.
This really puts a different spin on things — who wouldn’t prefer to be appraised along with peers instead of feeling like he or she has been singled out for being an “underperformer”?
But it sure won’t be easy. Under the old standards of evaluation systems, 99 percent of teachers were routinely deemed to be “effective,” regardless of student achievement. As the council’s report says: “Moving from a system that rates everyone as just fine to one that differentiates performance is daunting and requires a culture shift, and data from early implementers show just how hard it is. Some administrators may not yet have the skills to evaluate instruction, give constructive feedback and have hard conversations with underperformers.”
In other words, we can shift to understanding that every teacher should be evaluated and helped to improve — and, trust me, great teachers strive to improve every day simply as a matter of course. Now the next step will be to focus on training legions of administrators in the art of analyzing, acknowledging and addressing strengths and weaknesses of their educators in a positive and constructive way.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.