What if teacher evaluations actually helped?

There has been a lot of talk swirling around the blog-o-sphere on education reform focused on the quality of teachers.  Unfortunately, too much of the discussion has focused on the debate on how schools should rank teachers; how to reward the highly ranked teachers; and how to punish to fire poorly ranked teachers.

It’s refreshing to read the report by the Illinois New Millennium Initiative (NMI) team.  There are several NMI teams across the country, organized and supported by the Center for Teaching Quality and consisting of expert teachers who are in the early stages of their careers.  These teams are looking to shift the conversations in the ed-reform debate away from the vitriolic finger pointing and toward real solutions that schools and teachers can embrace to support improved learning for children.

So what might a teacher evaluation system look like if it were redesigned as a reasonable solution that supports improved learning?  The Illinois NMI team has some compelling ideas in their report, “Measuring Learning, Supporting Teaching.”

The centerpiece of their report is a rethinking of the teacher evaluation system from one that traditionally ranks teachers to a system that identifies ways that all teachers can improve.  The NMI team focused specifically on Illinois, in response to recent state legislation that looks to reform teacher evaluations and tie them more closely to student tests scores.  Illinios is just one of a growing number of states that have passed or are looking to pass legislation to link teacher evaluations to students test scores.  As states consider these reforms, they would be well-served to read the NMI team’s recomendations.

Far too often, the current teacher-evaluation system is characterized by the so-called drive-by observation.  Administrators and teachers set up a day for an observation.  With a checklist of items to look for, the administrator visits the class for a short period of time and fills out the form.  Then, a few days later, the teacher and administrator discuss the form.  If the teacher is labeled “effective,” then the process ends.  If the teacher is labeled “ineffective,” then she may be referred for assistance, or the administrator may begin the termination process.  Either way, typically, when a less-than-effective ranking is assigned to a teacher, the union gets involved and there is a protracted fight over the ranking.  In light of the ineffective way many teacher evaluations are currently done, teachers should not be surprized by the efforts of reforms to change this system.  Instead, teachers should take the lead, as the  Illinois New Millennium Initiative team has done.

The Illinois NMI team recognizes the untapped power of a well-designed teacher evaluation system.  If teachers and administrators had a relationship of trust and collegiality, then teachers would feel safe enough to discuss the areas of their practice where they would like help, or would like to improve.  The colleague doing the observation (traditionally the administrator, but this could be a peer observer or a teacher-leader as proposed by this report and the NMI team in Denver) would spend more than one or two hours in the teacher’s classroom, looking at the learning processes that are going on.  With this wealth of data about teachers’ needs and desires for improvement, the school could design it’s professional development experiences and trainings.

Rethinking Professional Development

Whatever the resulting label of the traditional evaluation system, one element that is missing is a way for the classroom teacher to use the observation as a tool for professional improvement.  This is too bad.  All teachers can improve our professional practice, not just those who are struggling.

The Illinois NMI team recognizes the hit-and-miss nature of traditional teacher professional development opportunities.

An evaluation system that meets our best practice criteria—offering rich and timely feedback, aligned with meaningful learning goals and standards in a strong curriculum, and tied to differentiated professional development and collaboration experiences—can help struggling schools develop more supportive climates for teaching and learning.

~Measuring Learning, Supporting Teaching


When these experiences are planned from the top down, then only a small number of school leaders are deciding what those experiences are going to look like in a given year.  When the training is delivered, some teachers find the experience valuable.  Others think the professional development interesting but not relevant.  Still others sit in the back and grade student work, implying that the professional development activity is a waste of valuable time.

If professional development were linked to an improved teacher evaluation system imagined by the Illinois NMI team, them the percentage of teachers finding relevance in t the schools professional development opportunities should increase significantly.  As the Illinois NMI team notes, “evaluations should be linked to professional development plans for all teachers,” not just ones who struggle.

Linking teacher evaluations to differentiated teacher professional development whould have several benefits.  First, it could take some of the stygma out of a professional development plan.  If all teachers have plans based on their evaluations, and all teachers are doing professional development customized to help them get even better at thier jobs, then the stygma is gone.  Second, teachers will generally find thier professional development more meaningful when they have some control of their PD plans and if they see that their professional development relevant to thier instructional needs.

Imagine if school leaders looked at their teacher observation data well before planning professional development and determined the top four burning needs of the teaching staff at their school?  They could then organize four different training opportunities for the professional development time and allow teachers to choose which sessions would best meet their needs.

Schools would then be moving from a drive-by and isolated teacher-ranking system to one that aims and helping every teacher improve.  Additionally, professional development would no longer be one-size-fits-all that really only meets the needs of a few teachers.

What do you think?  If you had faith and trust in your teacher evaluation system, what would you hope your observer would notice about your practice that could stand some improvement?  If your school’s professional development really met your needs as a teacher, what topics or sessions would you want to participate in?