Op-Ed: Teacher Evaluations Shouldn’t Just Be Based on Standardized Tests

A ninth-grade teacher shares what makes her school’s evaluation system effective—without alienating teachers.

Classroom observation is a key component of this teacher's evaluation. (Photo: Echo)

Apr 12, 2013
is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow and teaches 9th Grade English Language Arts in the San Fernando Valley.

I’m a ninth-grade English teacher at an urban school. I fell in love with teaching the first time I walked into a classroom, but in my first year as a teacher I was terrified of being evaluated. 

Many school districts still use what is essentially a pass/fail teacher evaluation system, but the charter school where I teach uses a teacher evaluation focused on student achievement. The system is designed to assess each teacher’s effectiveness using multiple measures and a detailed framework that explains what great teaching looks like. Our evaluation system is anything but a formality, and to a first-year teacher, it was daunting.

I came to teaching as a career-changer after almost a decade in a corporate career. While I loved the reality of being in the classroom, it was ego-bruising to feel like a beginner again. In my corporate job I was experienced enough to excel without really trying, but as a teacher I often felt overwhelmed and frustrated, embarrassed by my inexperience and ashamed that I might be failing my students. 

I was giving the job every iota of energy I had, but I knew that my teaching fell short of the level of excellence I’d hoped for. In those early months, hounded by insecurities, I bristled at criticism—no matter how constructive. The idea of being formally evaluated terrified me because I suspected it might show others all my teaching flaws that I was privately trying to overcome.

Once I experienced the evaluation process, however, I realized how lucky I was to teach in a place that strongly values teachers as the catalysts for student success. Our Teacher Development System helps teachers identify their individual areas of strength and provides guidance and support in areas for professional growth. The idea is to get a full picture of a teacher’s performance through multiple measures, including formal and informal classroom observations, surveys of students, parents, and peers, and student test scores.

It is no secret that the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers has gotten a lot of media attention over the last few years. Admittedly, at first blush the idea made me nervous too.

The scores used are not the students’ raw scores, but instead a measure of how much each student improved over the year compared to similar students in other schools or classrooms. Despite this, the idea that a teacher’s year-long performance boils down to a single day of testing is troubling.

Who can say whether on test day a student had a cold, just overheard a fight between their parents, got jumped on the way to school, or took the test on an empty stomach?

What is important to note, however, is that student test scores aren’t the only way that my teaching is measured. I work hard all year to make sure students are prepared for state testing, but when it comes to my evaluation, it’s the formal observation that I spend the most time preparing for. 

Designed to showcase my very best teaching, the first formal observation I experienced was stressful and a bit more forced than my everyday classroom practice.  Even so, I believe the formal observation component of the evaluation is worthwhile because planning and executing an excellent lesson requires a thoughtful review of the teaching framework. 

The act of planning and teaching a “best practices” lesson reminds me about things to consider in my everyday teaching, when the only eyes watching me are those of my students. Every formal observation I’ve experienced has included invaluable feedback that helped me identify actions to take in order to help my students learn. 

Now that I’ve been through several observations, I find myself thinking about specific elements of the teaching framework all the time. Guided by the goals I set with my school leader after the observation, I’m planning lessons that incorporate deeper questioning, stronger student engagement, and more opportunities for students to engage in academic conversations and reflect on their own learning.

Because every teacher I work with is participating in the same evaluation process, we have a common language that lets us collaborate easily. My peers know where I’m strong and when to come to me for help, and I know who to go to if I have a question about how to improve. Informal copy-machine conversations turn into collaborative work-sessions where everyone brings their strengths to the table in service of student achievement. 

There are still areas of the Teacher Development system that need refining, and of course taking a warts-and-all look at yourself can sting a bit. Ultimately, I have confidence in our evaluation process because it is more rigorous and more meaningful than any annual review I received as a member of the corporate workforce. 

The framework establishes a roadmap that lets our entire staff work toward common goals for student achievement. Although individual teachers are at different points in their careers, we are all working together toward a common purpose using a clearly defined set of shared expectations. This year I reached out to the first-year teacher across the hall and encouraged him to embrace rather than fear the evaluation process. As teachers, we must model the growth mindset we wish to see in our students because what is true for them is also true for us: learning and improvement is always possible.

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