Teacher evaluation: Who’s looking?

BlindfoldOne of my primary reasons for seeking National Board Certification was to get some real professional feedback on my work in the classroom. Technically, such feedback is supposed to come from the building principal, usually referred to as the “instructional leader” of the school. Fat chance.

I taught high school for 15 years under four different principals. I was observed teaching by my principals a grand total of four times. One principal never saw me teach; one made two classroom visits in five years. I have yet to have one who actually followed the written district policy of how these evaluations are to be conducted: a pre-visit conference with the teacher, the actual observation, and a post-visit conference, along with any recommended follow-up. Most years, the principal wrote up the required evaluation forms, got the teacher’s signatures (if needed), and sent them on to the file folders at the central office.

It was generally understood that if the principal showed up in your classroom once in a school year, either you were a new teacher, s/he was a new principal, or there was some kind of accreditation visit approaching. If the principal visited your classrom more than once in the same school year, it meant the administration was gathering the necessary paperwork to justify not renewing your contract at the end of the school year (the most common way to get rid of a teacher).

Even without the principal evaluations, I had some sense that I was doing a good job. I was conscientious and cared about my students. They tended to do well after they left my class (next grade level, post-secondary, careers). When I taught grades that were on the state testing cycle, they did well. (Remember, anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of educators in the U.S. teach in subjects or schools that are not, and in some cases cannot, be measured by standardized tests). My students won awards; I won awards. Sometimes, students or their parents would come back and tell me how helpful my class had been. But this was not the kind of consistent, helpful, critical feedback that I could use to improve my professional work. I became active in teacher-research and began doing qualitative studies of my own teaching which I shared with larger learning communities through various networks. Ironically, there are peers and scholars around the country who have seen more of my classroom work via video and web tools, than all of my former administrators, combined.

Fortunately, there are places where teacher evaluation is taken seriously, and where building principals are given the time and support to do that important function more thoroughly. There are also a precious few schools were teacher evalution is a well-designed, peer responsbility. These are the oases.

The lack of effective teacher evaluation has been one of the main reasons teachers have not embraced linking pay to performance. Not, as many uninformed critics have argued, because teachers don’t want to be held accountable. I believe teachers do want to be held to high standards and meet them; this is our life’s work. However, teaching quality can’t be measured with a test-score print out at the end of the year and a “walk-by” peek in the window of my classroom door.

The Education Sector, a policy thinktank, held a workshop recently on the topic of teacher evaluation as build-up to their soon to be released report. While the panel discussion was more PR than substance, I am looking forward to the report, and hopefully, to the attention it may help generate to how teacher evaluations are done and by whom.

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