Denver teachers propose reforms to teacher evaluations

Perhaps one of the most vitriolic divides in the educational reform debates of 2010/2011 is about teacher evaluations.  On one hand, some point to the high levels of teachers rated as “good” or “excellent” as evidence that teachers should not be the main focus of education reform.  On the other hand, others look at the same data and decry that the teacher evaluation system, itself, is broken.  Too often, the two sides in this debate fail to engage the other, looking for a middle ground.  Too often, conversations about teacher evaluations are held exclusively with like-minded people.  Too often, we preach only to our political choir and demonize those who disagree with us.

In a partisan world, it is hard to take a strong stand for a reasonable middle ground. Even when teachers, like myself, find that the middle is exactly where we stand, it is more than a little bit scary to risk being vilified by both sides because we find reasonable arguments from both sides.

Looking at my own school, I could name one (or two, or three)  teacher (s) I don’t believe belongs in the classroom anymore.  Even as I type the previous sentence, however, I begin to second-guess myself and my list of “bad teachers.”  How often have I actually been in the classrooms of these teachers?  None.  Neither of the teachers I think of when I think “bad teacher” work with me in our professional learning communities (PLC).  Even though I have time in my schedule to collaborate with the teachers in my PLC, and even though the teachers in my PLC and I visit one another’s classrooms, we rarely find the time to work with teachers outside of our circle.  So what evidence do I have that the teachers whom I label “bad” really are as bad as I think they are?  The rumor mill: stories I hear from colleagues, administrators, and students.

At the same time, I can’t find it in myself to believe  “everything is fine”  either.  Last year, my high school graduated around 350 seniors.  Four years prior, we enrolled over 650 freshmen into that same cohort.  What happened to the nearly 50% who didn’t graduate?  Everything is certainly not fine when only a little more than half of my freshmen will walk across the stage four years later.

So where do teacher evaluations come into play?  Well, on the one hand, some pundits and reformers say that my school would be better if only we were able to fire those two or three “bad teachers.”  Numbers from 5-10% or even 20% are thrown about as the magic formula of bad teachers who need to be shown the door.  Others argue that as long as children live in poverty, the teachers we hire to replace the ones we fire won’t be any more successful.  These folks tell us that we cannot, “Fire our way to Finland.”

One thing I do know are this: all teachers have the ability to be better next year than they are right now.

Teacher evaluations should be an important part of how we improve every year.  Our observers should be able to look at our lessons and how students interact with their materials.  They should be able to engage us in conversations about our instruction with a critical eye and offer ideas on how we can improve.  They should, but too often, they do not.

The current system of teacher evaluations is too wrapped up in the power structure of the school.  Administrators evaluate teachers with more of an eye toward making decisions about whether or not to retain a teacher, and less toward teacher improvement.  As such, the evaluation system has devolved into an elaborate game of “gotcha” where administrators are trying to “ding” teachers.  Teachers know this too.  Too often, teachers are just as caught up in the game of evaluations, putting on a show of what we think great teaching looks like that is too often not the norm of our classrooms.  The current system of teacher evaluations does little to help teachers become better, which is a shame. After reading their initial report, The New Millennium Initiative in Denver, Colorado seems to agree that teacher observations and evaluations need to change and that the system needs to refocus on student learning and teacher improvement.  They offer a compelling vision of how teacher evaluations could be useful in helping improve public education.

According to the Denver NMI’ s report,“Making Teacher Evaluation Work for Students: Voices from the Classroom,” employing well-trained professional teachers to conduct teacher evaluations is critical to teachers’ growth and student success.  Currently, the job of evaluating teachers is left to the school’s administrative team.  Too often, administrators with little or no experience in the subject area, or even grade level of the teachers they are evaluating, are thrust into the position of making judgment calls based on the 20-40 minutes (sometimes less) they have spent in a teacher’s classroom in a given year.  This is a ridiculous system.  It is no surprise that teacher evaluation has devolved over the years into a meaningless hoop to jump through and the elaborate game of “Gotcha!” we live with today.

This is a great opportunity for the nation’s teachers’ unions to step up and transform into the professional organizations we teachers need.  Over the years, I have learned far more from visiting my colleagues’ classrooms and having them visit mine. We observe each other and help each other grow into our practice.

Can you imagine what teacher evaluation might look like if well-trained teacher-leader evaluators worked with other  teachers to improve their practice?  A first step, according to Victoria Okell of  Denver NMI, is for the evaluators to agree on what effective teaching looks like:

All evaluators should be normed to agree on what good instruction looks like. It is not okay for three evaluators to walk into a room and one sees a phenomenal lesson, another sees a mediocre lesson, and the last sees utter garbage. Part of evaluator training should always be norming practices about what effective instruction looks like. I think a holistic rubric is a good place to start. Outlining what makes effective instruction on paper first and training evaluators about what to look for is the key to high-quality evaluation.

Teachers could think of these people as coaches; talk with them about what aspects of their practices they would like to get better at over the course of the year.  The evaluator/coach would actually look for ways to help the teacher get better in her/his practice.  I would take this even one step further; in addition to evaluating teachers, the well-trained teacher-leader evaluators that the Denver NMI writes about should also be in charge of organizing the professional development for the school or district.

I can imagine the Denver NMI’s recommendation for teacher-leaders evaluating fellow teachers as the first half of a formative-evaluation and differentiated professional development system that I have previously written about.  Teacher-leader evaluators should work with teachers only along the lines of helping teachers improve their practice (not in building a case for dismissal).  The vast majority of the teachers working today are good solid professionals who want to improve every year.  Who better to guide them than other effective teachers?