“No system of teacher evaluation is perfect. But we can certainly do a better job than what now exists.” —Retired classroom teacher and education writer Walt Gardner
How should teachers be evaluated? According to the Obama administration, any assessment of teachers must take student achievement data into account. In order to be eligible for Race to the Top, 13 states implemented evaluation systems tying teacher reviews to student test scores.
But equating teachers’ performance with pencil and paper test scores is a controversial idea. “Learning is complex, and…it is not captured in a test score; it is not captured in most of the data that is worshiped at the district, state, and federal levels,” says Anthony Cody, a science-content coach and former teacher. “We want to be held accountable for things that matter, and we’ve seen test scores create a system of accountability that has a very poor relationship to what really matters for students.”
Most states concede that factors other than test scores should be considered when assessing teachers. For instance, New York State’s Board of Regents recently approved of evaluation guidelines that base 40 percent of teachers’ ratings on achievement data, and 60 percent on subjective measures to be hammered out at the local level.
Exactly what should those subjective criteria be? Here’s a list of six promising alternatives:
1. PEER REVIEW: Asking teachers to assess each other is becoming an increasingly common practice. Educators have an interest in evaluating each other vigilantly, says Gardner, because when teachers are ineffective, it creates additional work for their colleagues. The Math and Science Leadership Academy in Colorado provides a model of successful peer review. Teams of three teachers spend about five hours each semester observing one another’s classrooms and providing detailed feedback.
2. STUDENT RATINGS: No one spends more time watching teachers work than the students in their classrooms. Educators 4 Excellence, an organization representing over 2,500 educators, recommends that 10 percent of teacher ratings be based on student surveys. A two-year study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation finds that “student perceptions are reliable, informative, and predictive of teacher effectiveness.”
3. INDEPENDENT OBSERVERS: Large school districts such as Denver, New Haven, D.C., Cincinnati, and Toledo employ full-time roving experts to watch teachers in action and critique their performance. For a sneak peak at how the process works, check out The Washington Post’s description of the delicate evaluation discussion between master teacher Eric Bethel and elementary school teacher Clay Harris.
4. NON-TEST ACHIEVEMENT DATA: Test scores may be easy to measure, but they only provide a narrow window into what students know and are able to do. For a more comprehensive view of teachers’ impact on learning and achievement, a wider range of student work should be considered, so says the Denver New Millennium Initiative, a diverse group of award-winning educators, in their report on improving teacher evaluations. And the Obama administration agrees. Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, explains that the federal government is “developing guidance for states, so they appreciate it doesn’t have to be a paper-and-pencil test. In things like music and physical education, there are other ways.”
5. ADMINISTRATOR REVIEW: The most common evaluators called upon to assess teachers are school principals. In order to be effective instructional leaders, principals should have a detailed understanding of the craft of teaching, a clear rubric of what to look for when they observe teachers, the ability to present their findings as constructive feedback, and enough time in their schedules to repeatedly assess teachers throughout the year.
6. SELF-EVALUATION: Former Michigan Teacher of the Year and education consultant Nancy Flanagan argues that teachers should be treated as capable, autonomous, and responsible professionals who can effectively examine their own work. The National Board Certification process is a model of what high-level self-evaluation can look like. Teacher candidates submit a detailed analysis of their own work to be assessed according to pre-determined standards of accomplished practice.
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