Two Oakland schools pilot new teacher evaluation system (Part 2)

This piece was originally published on Katy Murphy’s education blog with the Oakland Tribune.

In my last post, I offered an overview of a proposed teacher evaluation system that two Oakland schools are piloting. The proposed system would replace the six performance criteria outlined in the California Standards for the Teaching Profession in favor of five new, but remarkably similar, criteria. I also examined one major departure from the current system of teacher evaluation: the use of student performance data.

In this post, we will look at another significant difference from the current and piloted systems: feedback from a teacher’s students and colleagues.

The proposed teacher evaluation system will add a component called 360-Degree Feedback. In essence, this is corporate jargon for using multiple perspectives and sources of information to inform an evaluation. Jargon aside, I applaud the effort to draw in more voices and viewpoints that just one administrator’s in the evaluation of a teacher.

The pilot evaluation system already doubles the number of people observing a teacher, simply by asking an instructional coach to do several observations in concert with the observations that a principal would do. The 360-degree feedback adds to this a set of surveys completed by the teacher’s students and another set completed by her colleagues.

I can already imagine some of the concerns that some teachers will have. Surveys can be influenced heavily by emotions. A student who is angry with me because I would not flex on a deadline might rate me as a poor teacher, while that same student may rate me an excellent teacher because I flexed on the deadline. Emotional responses like these would have only a vague reflection on my actual effectiveness as a teacher. At the same time, my colleagues may be reluctant to give me honest feedback in order to maintain harmony in the copy center and teacher cafeteria.

The solution to both of these concerns is simple. The people who are analyzing the survey data must bring to bear their professional judgment. Rather than mindlessly allowing this data to drive their evaluation of a teacher, professional educators must remain firmly in the driver’s seat and only allow the data to inform our decisions.

The so-called data-driven movement sits at the core of what is wrong with the current educational reform movement. Leaving this unaddressed could bring disaster to the piloted (and any) teacher evaluation model. Professionals on both sides of the teacher-evaluation question are shying away from disagreement. Neither side wants to be the villain in a conflict about whether or not a teacher should be dismissed because of sub-standard performance.

In the question of whether or not to dismiss a teacher, administrations around California and in many states would prefer to defer to test scores. They claim that teachers’ unions are too strong; the union’s successful defense of a teacher is so assured, that principals would rather suffer a poor teacher than attempt to dismiss him. Rather, allow the numbers to speak for themselves, they tend to argue. If a teacher’s students are not performing well on the state-mandated exam, the scores should be irrefutable proof for the teacher’s dismissal.

On the other side, teachers’ unions are loath to allow teachers to sit in judgment of one another. It will erode solidarity, pitting teachers against one another, making teachers easier targets for arbitrary and capricious actions from management. Rather than evolve into a professional association like the Bar Association or the Medical Board, where lawyers and doctors hold one another accountable to their profession’s standards, teachers’ unions tend to behave more like teamsters and steamfitters, wanting management to hold teachers accountable.

On both sides, professionals are abdicating their rights and responsibilities as professionals. Teachers abdicate to principals, and principals to testing companies. I say again: the solution is simple. Education professions must reclaim their professional rights and responsibilities.

Here in Oakland, the proposed teacher evaluation may be a good first step. Allowing multiple professionals to observe and evaluate a teacher could allow for richer discussions about what aspects of practice the teacher excels in, and where she can make improvements. Teachers, coaches, and administrators may find themselves disagreeing as they discuss a teacher. I hope they embrace the disagreement, and use these instances to engage in rich dialogue. Public education is too important not to.

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