Teacher Evaluations: The Challenge to making them successful

Harold Kwalwasser, November 1, 2012

Teacher evaluation. It was a flashpoint (maybe the flashpoint) of the recent Chicago teacher strike. The union and the Chicago Public Schools wrangled about how to implement the new Illinois law requiring more stringent teacher evaluations – including the requirement that any assessment include student test scores.

But the strike settled. The issue seemingly was resolved. So we can all move on to the next issue. Right? Wrong. Teacher evaluation is a piece of a much bigger story where the most interesting parts have yet to be written.

That story goes back to the early 20th Century. The Establishment white males who were then designing public education did not expect teachers to be highly competent. The workforce was viewed with condescension typical of the age: Teachers were, after all, often women and minorities. The curriculum was designed accordingly.

Mass production was just coming into its own in industry, and the education elite decided that the same models would also work in the classroom. The instruction was heavily scripted, with teachers being told what to teach and how to teach it. Few of that era’s experts believed teachers could – or should – be given much discretion in how they conducted their instruction. Instead of a conveyor belt of cars, there was a conveyor belt of kids.

In fact, this model never made much sense in theory or in practice. Scripted instruction has always had its limitations. It was too inflexible to reach many students, who simply got lost even while sitting there – right in the classroom. To compensate, teachers often exercised considerable discretion to reach kids who otherwise would have been left to flounder. But that still left a system at war with itself, and the results showed.

Administrators on the ground, who should have known what was going on, rarely seemed to see what was right before their eyes. For most of the past 100 years, districts did not take evaluations seriously because they did not take teacher quality seriously – regardless of the facts. Most teachers were awarded tenure without any meaningful consideration of their skill, and few places installed the kind of professional development program that demanded teachers continuously improve their practice.

It does not have to be this way. Without being prodded by some state law, dozens of districts around the country have understood teaching excellence is important. They saw that once this country made a commitment that every child would learn, the old scripted style of teaching could never work. Teaching now has to be flexible and strategic, tailoring instruction to the needs of each student. The new demands on education could never be met without changing our attitude toward quality instruction.

In every case, the bedrock of these districts’ effort is an evaluation system that makes a meaningful assessment of teacher performance. You can’t improve if you don’t know where you are (or where you have been). That is then coupled with intense training to try to get even those who are struggling up to an acceptable level of practice. One example is Montgomery County, Maryland, the 2010 winner of the prestigious Baldrige Award given by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology for excellence in education.

But for those districts that do not follow this path, they are missing more than just an evaluation process. They do not have principals and master teachers who know enough about what good instruction looks like to do evaluations. They do not have professional development in place that can assist those who are struggling to do better. Lacking a belief in, and commitment to, high quality instruction, they simply do not have the will to overturn 100 years of doing things built around the idea that teacher quality is not all that important.

Most importantly, there is no trust between teachers and administrators that the judgments being made are on the merits – and not some cynically driven form of “gotcha.”

Which brings us back to the Illinois Legislature. In looking at the big picture, the legislature was absolutely right in concluding that most districts in the state had not taken evaluation seriously. They had shirked a fundamental part of their business. That more than justified the legislature’s stepping in.

And here is the “yes, but.” While the legislature mandated the evaluation process, it did not mandate that principals and others have adequate training to do evaluations properly (nor did they fund such training). It also did not mandate a structure for professional development that made clear that the evaluations are part of continuous improvement, rather than a quick way to fire people.

But what is most critical is that the law could not mandate people’s beliefs. It could not mandate that principals appreciate that evaluations and training are a vital part of their role. It could not impress upon teachers they are in an era where we are trying to educate every child, which means there really has to be a commitment to teaching excellence. And, most importantly, the legislature could not mandate the trust required to make all this work.

The task before the Chicago Public Schools is clear. It has to find the money and the time to build all the infrastructure necessary to support the new evaluations. But, far more critically, the new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and CTU President Karen Lewis have to be build trust. Never a quality present in large measure in Chicago schools, the strike has driven the two sides even further apart.

What about your district? Many of you have had new evaluation systems imposed on you by virtue of new state laws. Write me back to tell me if you have the right beliefs and practices in place to make the new evaluations a success. And I’d like to know anything that your district has done that has really moved the ball forward. I expect that there are hundreds of districts around the country that are struggling with this new obligation. Any help will be greatly appreciated.

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