Thursday, July 19, 2012

Looking Beyond Our Present System of Teacher Evaluation

In the business of public education we are obsessed with the process of teacher evaluation.  We spend hours of work trying to create the perfect tool that will allow administrators to evaluate teachers fairly with some degree of integrity while at the same time providing support and input to help teachers grow.  Despite this effort, however, we still seem to struggle with getting rid of the bad teachers in the profession and rewarding the good ones.  Most of the systems we develop to evaluate teachers are too cumbersome and administrators lack the time they need to visit classrooms on a regular basis.  Additionally, most evaluation tools seem to be somewhat “event-based” meaning the teacher’s evaluation is based on some sort of administrator's planned visit to the class.  The teacher then prepares a super lesson and the administrator bases the evaluation from a limited amount of observational evidence.   The evaluation process does not respond as teachers progress in their career and gain more skills.  If you ask most good teachers, the evaluation process is often just a paper game that goes in a file.
     Now we have a new law in our state that boldly says that teachers will be evaluated on their ability to create student growth during the year.  Those smart politicians at the capitol decided that if we mandate by law that teachers create growth in their students then it would somehow occur.  There is a little problem, however. We don’t really know what student growth is and we lack the resources and training to measure it with any degree of reliability or validity.  Perhaps these same politicians should invent a magic wand of value-added assessment that would measure how much growth each student makes and then we can finally find out who are the good and bad teachers.  But there is still one big question: What is student growth?  Obviously, the politicians have a simple answer: data from standardized tests.  As I thought about what I do to cause students to grow during the school year, the question got delightfully more complex.  Student growth is certainly more than test scores or even knowledge of science.
So what is student growth? We all know what the politicians think it is and how it’s measured, but do the teachers agree?  When you ask teachers about student growth you get some very interesting answers, and ironically, very few mention standardized test scores.  When you talk to teachers, who create student growth on a daily basis, you quickly realize that students grow in many ways.  In our society we are obsessed with measuring cognitive ability and subsequently assign great value to test scores.  But in schools, where learning is occurring, people seem to value many other aspects of student growth that can’t be assessed on a state test.  Teachers know that there are a whole lot of things going on at school that support student academic growth that just can’t be measured.  You will often hear stories of emotional or social growth that occurs during the course of the day.  When I hear my teaching teammates talk about students succeeding and growing, they are always referring to specific things the student did, not some abstract measure on a state test given once a year.
I’ve studied teacher evaluation for almost 15 years and one of the most troubling trends is the new focus on test scores.  Because we gathered the data in statewide tests we feel compelled to use the data for teacher evaluation regardless of whether it’s fair or valid.  This use of test scores to evaluate teachers is so ridiculous to anyone who knows the profession, yet that is exactly what the politicians do in many states.  They pass laws that mandate student growth, yet few politicians know how we are going to measure this outside of the once-a-year test.  So I decided to sit down with some other teachers and try to figure out what is student growth, or at least expand our understanding of all the ways students grow during the school year.  I thought it might be useful to go past the present systems of teacher evaluation, which essentially measure what I call minimum proficiency (doing the simple stuff like taking attendance and showing up for meetings), and find out what good teachers do to create student growth.  Most systems for evaluating teachers are only useful in the first five years of a career, when teachers are growing most rapidly.  After that time teacher evaluation becomes somewhat of a waste of time for both administrators and teachers.  Good teachers go well beyond the current evaluation expectations and do all sorts of things that contribute to student growth.  If we could identify some of these things we might find out a little more about good teaching and how hard it really is, as well as start to expand our understanding of student growth. 
  When you look at schools and teachers, one thing jumps out at you right away.  There are teachers who hold a growth mindset throughout their career, and there are teachers who work hard for the first few years and then coast the rest of their career.  Both teachers receive the same rating and pay in most systems of teacher evaluation, however the teacher with the growth mindset is almost always more effective over the course of their career.  They are constantly seeking to improve for the sake of doing the job better.  They study the craft of teaching and cognitive science in an effort to better serve the students they teach.  They lead by providing professional development that is grounded in the research and validated with their experience. The basic flaw in teacher evaluation is its focus on adequacy rather than excellence. There are lots of reasons our present system fails to identify excellence, not the least of which is the fact many administrators who evaluate the teachers are not particularly skilled classroom instructors.  Additionally, you can’t force people into a growth mindset as this is an intrinsic motivation in good teachers.  You can’t mandate that teachers put in extra effort and long hours, but that is what every good teacher I know does on a daily basis.  So the bottom line is most good teachers go well beyond what they are contracted to do for no other reason then they love children and teaching and feel a responsibility to continue to improve at their craft.
Because good teachers do different things to be good, it is difficult in a standardized evaluation system to capture what makes great teaching.  Most systems focus on overt teacher behaviors but fail to measure much of what actually teaches children.  Because the evaluation system is really designed to identify common attributes of successful teachers, the system is ultimately more useful to emerging teachers. The individual talents, interests, and passion a teacher brings to the classroom are often crucial to the achievement of students, yet we fail to measure these important aspects of our teachers.   
There is an important thread that seems to be present in the fabric of all good teachers.  Good teachers all have a desire to constantly improve. Carol Dweck describes it as the “growth mindset”, this belief that one can improve with hard work and practice. The efficacy and courage to try new ideas is based on this “can do” attitude.  The funny thing is, most teachers who have this growth mindset improve without even knowing it.  They seem to be motivated by forces greater than money and certainly validate the work of Daniel Pink in his book, "Drive".  They never seem to be done with planning or creating new ideas.  They have a great desire to work hours of overtime for free, with no greater reward than the students in their classroom learning.  Good teachers are intrinsically driven.  From a financial sense school districts should not even worry about rewarding excellence in the classroom as these teachers will improve and perform beyond their contract obligations regardless of the pay or working conditions.
Five New Criteria for Evaluating Teachers The following work might just be called five things good teachers do on a regular basis.  It might even be useful in identifying or measuring teacher excellence, but the main purpose is to expand our understanding of student growth.  These are five things teachers do to achieve exceptional growth and that should get the attention of a lot of people given that all public school teachers are now mandated to create student growth.       
  The five teacher qualities include: 1) Inspiration, 2) Social Context in Classrooms, 3) Relationships among students, parents, and colleagues, 4) Applications of Cognitive Science, 5) Creativity / Innovation. Each of these five teacher qualities will be presented with some elaboration to help define the quality through specific examples.  It is important to note that these five categories are not the only things good teachers do.  If you examine each of them you will clearly see that they are directly linked to student achievement and growth.  When you ask good teachers how they get students to learn, more often than not they start the answer with positive relationships and modeling hard work.  The research is quite clear on the role student perceptions about their teacher's competence plays in their ultimate effort and engagement in the class.  A teacher evaluation system that focuses on these qualities can guide all teachers to grow in these areas and will ultimately lead to greater student growth and achievement.
Great teachers inspire students to work hard and learn.  They seem to create a sense of purpose in the classroom through positive modeling and personal success.  Inspiring kids is talked about as a central theme and purpose of education, yet teacher evaluation does not recognize this important aspect of our job. We inspire kids in a variety of ways, often times without even knowing it.  
1) Work ethic - Good teachers work longer hours and more productively than other teachers.  They are at work early, they stay late, and they are grading on the weekends.  Students know which teachers spend more time working at the profession because their classroom demonstrates it.  Good teachers don’t complain about the extra time they spend on work, they just do it because they know it is necessary to do the job right.
2) Good teachers have a high degree of self-efficacy. This is closely linked to their growth mindset and the desire to create meaningful and engaging lessons.  This “can do” attitude is infectious and students develop their own efficacy by the positive modeling of the teacher.
3) Good teachers inspire students through healthy meaningful relationships.  They model getting along with other people and show students the virtues and values of developing good relationships at home and at school.
4) Good teachers inspire students with their dedication to the profession.  They model interest in the profession by studying the research and constantly trying new ideas to strengthen their teaching.  Good teachers are interested in their professional development and incorporate new ideas into practice. Students see an adult enjoying work, and that inspires them to see their career as more than a job.
5) Good teachers love what they do and inspire students to value learning and knowing the content of the subjects they teach.  They go well beyond reading the book and watching films. They model their passion for learning by studying their subject and continuing to grow throughout their career.
6) Teachers inspire students through their personal accomplishments.  Good teachers inspire students with volunteer work, their athletic ability, musical ability or other non-school skills.  It’s our duty to model outside interests and healthy hobbies.  Kids look up to teachers who model outside interests and accomplishments.
Positive Social climate
The age of cognitive accountability and value-added education has turned its back on perhaps the most foundational of all teaching skills: the relationship with the student.  In our lust for measuring academic ability and demonstrated skills we have often turned students into numbered widgets.  The best teachers still know the power of relationships and understand that this aspect of teaching is crucial to student growth.  The best teachers use their classroom to teach social as well as academic lessons and they consistently model positive interactions with both students and adults. So much emphasis has been put on test scores and academic achievement that many teachers see these as the entire measure of their efforts. The best teachers know that students are more productive and can potentially learn much more in a classroom that provides a positive social atmosphere.  
  1) Social Learning Structures is a fancy term I use for how well the teacher is using cooperative small group learning strategies.  We know the power of students working together in well-planned lessons. The best teachers tap into the social learning system. A successful group learning activity depends on planning and innovation coupled with solid rules and procedures that are overtly taught to the students.  Good teachers employ a variety of strategies to help students work together in class.
2) Good teachers create an atmosphere where all people in the room feel safe and valued. Time is taken to teach students how to interact in a positive and productive manor. Perhaps most important is the teacher modeling respectful and positive interactions with everyone in the room.
3) If a teacher does the two things above well the result is a positive social climate.  Some classrooms have a certain comfort with students working together.  The students know their roles and they see the power of sharing ideas and working collaboratively. The teacher has created a classroom where positive interactions and planned social learning combine to create an atmosphere of productivity.
4) Inclusion of all students and providing fair access to learning is mandated in all contracts.  Some teachers do a much better job than others, however, in meeting the needs of all students.  The skilled teacher goes beyond modifying and accommodating work to provide an equitable social atmosphere where students of all abilities work together and respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Building an inclusive social environment is crucial to providing fair access to education, yet few classrooms are really inclusive.
5) The last aspect of social atmosphere is the look of the room.  Some teachers spend a huge amount of time setting up their room to inspire students.  They post student work, have topical displays, and provide interesting thought-provoking demonstrations.  Some rooms have blank walls with a few Garfield posters saying: “do your best”. Enough said. The physical environment should inspire students and spark their interest in the subjects you teach.    
  Relationships with Colleagues/Students/Parents  
  The ability of good teachers to build and maintain positive relationships with both students and colleagues is an important aspect of a healthy school. Yet many teachers do not feel obligated to even be nice to their students.  Ironically, if you study the teaching contract, nowhere does it state that the teacher should build positive relationships with the students.  And some teachers base their classroom management style on purposefully not establishing positive relationships with students for fear of losing control. These teachers break no rules and their classroom is more often than not “under control”.  Good teachers know that positive relationships are essential to both the social atmosphere of the classroom as well as the engagement of students in the learning.                  
1) The best teachers strive to build positive relations with three groups of people in the school community.  First, and most important is the students.  The second group is parents, and they can be your biggest asset or worst enemy depending on the relationship you build. The last group is the adults you work with in the building.  Anyone who has worked in a school knows it’s kind of like a big family.  This creates unique challenges in the work place, as teachers must often work with people who they don’t necessarily respect professionally.  The best teachers are positive yet honest and work to get along with all adults as best as possible.  The research is clear on this aspect of the school community.  When the staff has positive relationships the students see appropriate models for behavior and ultimately achieve more growth.
2) Communication with parents is something that is mandated in most teaching contracts and almost all schools have policies regarding when to contact parents when students have academic or social problems.  The best teachers use communication in a more positive, proactive way.  Weekly newsletters and positive messages home about students can serve to open communication lines with parents.  Websites with homework and upcoming due dates can keep parents, students, and the teacher on the same page in regard to expectations.  There are a variety of ways to use technology to share information about students, both academic and behavioral with parents.  Additionally, positive information about school helps parents feel more comfortable with the teacher and therefore more likely to communicate concerns directly with the teacher rather than involving administrators.
3) Certainly one of the most challenging aspects of teaching is the need to be “on” all the time.  The best teachers are consistent in their behavior and treatment of both students and adults.  This is particularly important with students as they depend on teachers to be consistently caring and supportive.  Inconsistent behavior scares students and disrupts the social safety the teacher strives to create in a classroom.  Moody teachers are hard to work with and students tend to not trust them.  The importance of consistency in student relationships cannot be understated.
4) Modeling positive relationships is more powerful than talking about them.  Students see the adults in the building as role models for their behavior.  If the adults in the school strive to get along and model positive relationships the students will follow.  Additionally, research shows that schools in which adults have positive relationships also have higher academic achievement.
5) Good teachers take care to create an equitable and fair environment. It is challenging to treat 150 children equitably all the time.  Important to note, however, that students see this as one of the most important attributes of a good teacher. 
6) The best teachers are perceived by students as caring about their success in school.  Students work harder if they believe the teacher cares.
  Application of Cognitive Science  
It always surprises me how ignorant many teachers are of how the brain works.  One would think that teachers would study the process of learning and try to use this information for the benefit of students.  But this is not the case.  Many teachers can recite brain research but when you go in their classroom you see a most “unfriendly” place for learning.  In recent years our understanding of how students learn has grown exponentially.  The best teachers have been following these developments and incorporating them into their instructional practices.  There is a good reason that psychologists recently changed the name of cognitive theory to cognitive science.  The best teachers understand and employ the ideas of cognitive science to create a more effective learning environment.
Important to note in the title of this section I added in the word application.  Lots of people go to in-service days and read books on cognition, but the best teachers actually take the theory and put it to work in their classroom.      
Assessment Literacy
There is a big push in education to promote higher-level thinking and complex reasoning.  If you study documents like the 21st Century Skills they simply skip the foundational skills that students need to practice and master and jump right into abstract higher-level learning. The good teacher knows what their students can do and provides the proper background knowledge prior to doing higher-level thinking.  We talk about developing well-rounded, critical thinking global citizens, but our standards reduce school to emphasizing memorization and “drill and kill”.  Good teachers have the creativity to build authentic higher-level thinking assignments that are of appropriate difficultly.
Good teachers design their own tests. The questions match the content taught, and there are a variety of different kinds of questions.  Good teachers spend time reading students work.  They also take time to design creative authentic assessment tasks that challenge students to think and create and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. Collectively, the assigned assessments clearly demonstrate student growth and mastery of the curriculum.  Good teachers also understand the value of formative assessment, and it is built into their lesson design. 
Good teachers understand that reflection is an integral part of learning. They debrief lessons with the students and take time at the end of a unit to summarize how the learning fits into the bigger picture.  Good teachers have students reflect about their effort and social contributions as well as their academic achievement.
Good teachers understand that the key to student learning is engagement. They design classes that are cognitively friendly and promote student interest by using:
•Variety and Pacing
•Thinking time
•Social interaction
•Challenging questions
•Learning relevant to students’ lives
•Connections to students’ prior knowledge   
All of these promote student engagement in the lesson.
Good teachers consistently employ procedures that promote productivity. The students know what they need to do.  Good teachers plan lessons so the different parts of the lesson complement each other.  They are structured and organized in a way to promote student autonomy while maintaining productivity.
Good teachers create their own learning experiences. They take the assigned standards and curricular topics and create fun learning experiences for students.  They don’t teach by having students silently read. They interact with students and create an interactive classroom environment.
Creativity and Innovation
The last aspect of good teaching can’t be taught, but it does improve with experience.  Creativity is hard to define, but most people agree it’s one of those hard to measure attributes of great teachers.  All teachers take ideas from other teachers and tweak them to fit their style.  But some teachers go beyond and create authentic complex tasks that inspire students.  They create games and projects that motivate students to learn in fun ways.
We can also broaden our view of creativity to outside the classroom. Many teachers are leaders in their building by coming up with creative solutions to challenges within their school.  Some teachers create professional development or offer their insights beyond the scope of the district.   No teacher evaluation system can ever mandate creativity, but some teachers have it and use it to become better at the craft of teaching.
If you have managed to stay with me through all this discourse, I would like to return to the central question: What is student growth?  By examining what good teachers do I think we can see that students grow in various ways.  Social growth and the development of personal efficacy are not measured on the state test. Yet developing these personal traits is ultimately more important in adult life than academic ability.  If we are going to evaluate teachers on their ability to create growth through the year, we need to measure more than academic growth.  Additionally, we will need to measure how teachers create growth in new and creative ways.  The state test is not going to give us any insight into which teachers are creating student growth so we will need to invent some new assessment tools for teacher evaluation.
The five teacher qualities described above all seem to promote student growth in different ways.  Since the state test is only going to give us insight into academic skills and knowledge, how will we measure all the other student growth?  To get an understanding of how much a teacher inspires a student or creates social growth we are going to need to talk to the students and to take a fresh look at teacher evaluation.  I propose a three- step process:
1) Classroom Observation and Professional Dialogue Each teacher would have 10-12 hours of classroom observation followed with reflection time.  The evaluator needs to be skilled enough to provide insight and recognize complex lessons.  The mentor/evaluator would need to follow the class for several sessions to see how a unit of study develops.  This person would also need to be uniquely qualified to comment on various kinds of student growth occurring within the classroom.
2) Classroom Assessments of Academic Growth Teachers must validate their own worth by developing valid and reliable measures of academic student growth.  If we are going to be evaluated on how much student growth we create, I think we better get to work developing ways to measure growth at the classroom level.  No state test is going to be able to capture student growth as well as a teacher-designed local assessment.  As a profession our assessment literacy is quite low.  Most teachers do not know much about designing assessments so this will be professional development need.
3) Customer Survey  We need to start asking students and parents how did the teacher impact student growth?  Teacher evaluation fails to collect some of the most important data.  Many teachers don’t value what the students say, while others simply lack the courage to find out.  In either case we are missing a key piece of information in measuring how teachers create growth.  Students have unique insight into the role their teacher played in helping them grow - we just need to figure out how to ask. 
If you want to start evaluating teachers better you will need to spend money.  Identifying what great teachers do is very difficult.  The fact of the matter is that some teachers are more developed in these five areas than others.  Some teachers are funny and the kids love them.  Some teachers know their content better than others.  The problem with teacher evaluation is we don’t consider these unique attributes because they are not standardized.  If you remember a great teacher in your life, I bet you remember them for a reason related to their personality.  The bottom line is that teachers bring many talents to class everyday, and our present evaluation system does not capture many of them. 
The politicians have it right, student growth is what teachers should focus on.  The only problem is that their definition of student growth (test scores) is somewhat anemic.  If you want to find the good teachers in the profession, find the ones creating growth.  Remember that the data downtown will not be of much use to you in your search. If you want to see student growth you better come out to the classroom and see what goes on. You will see teachers who build positive relationships and inspire their students.  You will see teachers that value social as well as academic learning.  You will see professionals who are dedicated to the art and science of education.  It isn’t easy to measure what teachers do to create growth because it’s often individualized for a particular student.  Efforts to “standardize” excellence in any system of teacher evaluation will ultimately fail because the ways teachers create student growth is as different as the kids they teach.

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