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Teachers call for better evaluation systems

 “We want an evaluation system that helps us define our strengths so we can share those strengths with other teachers. We want an evaluation that defines areas where we need to grow, so we can be the best we can be…”

That’s what Julianna Dauble, an accomplished fifth-grade teacher from Renton in Washington State, thinks a teacher evaluation system should do. Julianna was one of ten expert teachers in the Washington New Millennium Initiative (NMI) who co-authored a new report entitled “How Better Teacher & Student Assessment Can Power Up Learning.”

Unlike other professionals, teachers aren’t routinely consulted when changes in their profession’s policy are being made. Yet teachers have unique and important insights based on their expertise with students, content, and teaching methods. Key policy decisions—and the details of implementation—should be informed by teachers’ perspectives. With this in mind, NMI brings together groups of accomplished and effective teachers in targeted locations to discuss education policy, with the goal of cultivating and elevating teachers’ voices in discussions about policy reform.

The Washington NMI team’s report comes in the wake of the passage of SB 6696, legislation that has the potential to move the state closer to establishing a set of fair and accurate teaching evaluation standards. Moving the state from a system in which teachers were deemed simply “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” the bill requires ratings to occur on a more nuanced four-level scale. It also calls for implementing additional methods for measuring teaching effectiveness that include but also go beyond value-added scores.

The law is currently in a two-year pilot phase, with statewide implementation due in the 2013-14 school year. That means districts have a unique opportunity to garner perspectives of expert teachers—like those of the Washington NMI team—about whether the new changes meet the needs of their districts and schools and how they can be implemented well at the school level.

The Washington NMI teachers have responded to the law with a set of guidelines based on a year-long study of best practices in evaluation policy, integrated with their own experience of what works to promote effective teaching and learning.

We are working with NMI teams in Colorado and Illinois—two states that passed similar laws.  The Washington teacher evaluation law is more like the one in Illinois: local educators have some leeway in figuring out how to implement it.

The Washington NMI team makes the case that:

  1. Teacher evaluation systems should be based on valid, accurate, and reliable measures of student learning. While standardized test scores provide some information, other measures should be used, too, such as teacher self-evaluations, self-chosen artifacts of lessons and student work, peer evaluations, and videotaped observations. These other data points can give educators, parents, policymakers, and community leaders a better idea of what students have learned, and can provide additional context for understanding standardized test scores.
  2. An improved evaluation system should equip teachers to design and use a variety of assessment tools that capture information about students' progress. School-based, curriculum-embedded assessments throughout the school year can give teachers more information about student learning, and  technology can support these methods). States should also invite teachers to take part in creating state standardized tests as well. Writes Katie Davis, one of the report’s teacher-authors, “I’m envisioning state testing to not be an end-of-year big event, but a regular set of smaller assessments that relate to pacing guides set by districts and aligned to state standards.”
  3. Teacher evaluation systems should also provide opportunities for classroom practitioners to spread their teaching expertise—and consider such leadership in individuals’ evaluations. Smart school systems must identify the “best” teachers—and place a premium on the spread of effective practices from one classroom to the next, as well as across schools, and districts. Technology—including online tools and smartphones—already offers many useful ways to spread teachers’ expertise.
  4. Teacher evaluation systems should include results-oriented professional learning communities (PLCs) in every school. These PLCs can provide space for teachers to collaborate (in and out of cyberspace) on formative assessments, share expertise, and be guided by master teachers, who could take on increased roles in areas such as peer evaluations. Jessica Conte, a first-grade teacher from Monroe, writes about her own PLC, “We have become a team of experts available to support and guide one another to best meet the needs of our entire group of students.”

Teacher and report co-author Ryan Niman from Edmonds emphasized the most important thing for policymakers to keep in mind: “Regardless of how teacher evaluation systems change, the most critical part of the entire process is that the system must be developed by those who really know teaching and learning.”

My hope is that other teachers around the country will hear this clarion call from their colleagues and advocate for changes they believe in. In Washington, the NMI team will begin to go “deep” in one of the state’s school districts — helping both district administrators and union leaders get above the usual fray and implement the new law. Meanwhile, CTQ’s New Millennium Initiative will continue to expand our virtual network of classroom experts who can identify TeacherSolutions to complex problems facing our public schools today — and tomorrow.

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