Where are we as a nation with teacher evaluations? Are we evaluating the right things?
The issue addressed by National Journal’s “Education Experts” blog last week had to do with teacher evaluations, which was one of the points of contention between the union and the school district that led to the strike in Chicago. Among the questions posed by the moderator of the blog were these: “Where are we as a nation with teacher evaluations? Are we evaluating the right things? What role should student data play in professional development? What about employment decisions?”
I weighed in on the conversation. Here is a slightly modified version of that post:
“Most teachers want from their evaluations what any highly skilled, motivated person wants: substantive, objective, actionable feedback; the energizing feeling that comes from contributing and being valued for your contribution; a clear idea of what it means to be excellent and help in reaching that level of performance. Teachers want to be involved in developing the systems by which they’ll be evaluated and take responsibility for their own improvement.
There’s a lot that we don’t know about how to best evaluate teachers. What we do know is that in the past evaluations have been done poorly and didn’t provide much information about how teachers’ practices and their effects on student learning differed. Across the country, many people are involved in developing and implementing new evaluation systems; most include a focus on multiple sources of data, including educators’ impact on student learning, and better observations. At Pearson, we are focusing on creating fair, valid and reliable systems that give us both more and better information. The more information we have, the better we will be able to understand educator performance, and the better we will be able to identify strengths and areas of improvement.
Earlier this year, we published a guide on how to create evaluation systems that they are as defensible and useful as possible. Undoubtedly, these systems will change and improve over time. But teaching is too important and the time students have in school too precious to wait for the perfect system. We need to do all we can now to strengthen the profession through better evaluations, useful feedback, and effective professional development and support. At Pearson, we will continue to implement better and more efficient evaluation systems using the most valid information available. Simultaneously, we are focusing our research on answering questions with the goal of making them even better and, over the longer term, strengthening the profession.
Here are some of the other questions we’re asking at Pearson:
- Can empirical research tell us more about how quickly typical teachers deepen their knowledge of content and improve in their ability to teach it?
- What can task analyses tell us about how the jobs of teachers change over the course of their careers?
- What distinguishes the practices of truly exceptional teachers?
- What are the methods and technologies that can improve teacher performance at scale in a cost effective way?
We also want to know which measures of educator effectiveness are the most valid and reliable. It is those measures that should be given the greatest weight in evaluations. But all data about teachers’ performance must be investigated by a knowledgeable evaluator who knows them and the context in which they work before making any decisions about what should come next—specific recommendations for how they can improve or, in the worst possible cases, removing them from a classroom.
Of course, teachers must be involved in designing these systems. It is not enough to just give them a voice. They know their students and their practice and they need to take ownership of what it means to be excellent and contribute to defining the best ways to get there.
For all we have yet to learn about how to evaluate the work of teachers, we do know that stronger, more effective evaluations are a critical element of any well-run organization that involves skilled professionals. Personnel evaluations in many fields, not just in education, are often poorly done and do not yield the improved performance that they should. It’s time for those of us in education to figure out how to capture meaningful data, diagnose and improve performance, and do all we can to change the trajectory of student learning.