We have to do what? The new face of teacher evaluations

Technology is key to successful teacher evaluations

teacher-evaluations As someone you’d politely call a “veteran educator,” I’ve been fortunate to work in schools for more than a quarter century, and in that time, like all of us in school leadership, I’ve seen many ideas come and go, often without lasting impact–or even much temporary effect–on our daily work. Even veteran educators, however, will admit that new teacher evaluation laws are what they call “a game changer”—one of those professional events that could not help but get our attention.

In 2011, our work changed dramatically. Teacher effectiveness laws put into place during a wave of legislative action in more than 20 states ultimately magnified a focus on the teacher evaluation process and asked hard questions about what we expect–and what we inspect–about the work of teaching and learning in public schools. Our best common sense, and even some research, tells us that the quality and outcomes of a child’s learning are often greatly impacted by the strength—or weakness—of his or her teachers. Thus, this heightened focus on how we define teacher effectiveness, and how we develop it, is not unimportant.

For most of my career, I can honestly say that I did not experience teacher evaluation as a serious event in the life of a school. Evaluations might consist of a principal or department chair colleague coming briefly into my class, watching a lesson, and writing up a narrative or checking a list of skills I showed. As I became more experienced, this process gave way to a brief conversation about my annual goals and a nice narrative paragraph thanking me for my service. Some colleagues I know went years without anyone actually watching them teach or talking to them about the results of their work with students. New law requires annual evaluation for every licensed working teacher in our state based on multiple measures including classroom observations and documented results of student learning. Did I say game change?

(Next page: The changing face of teacher evaluations)

Increased accountability for teacher evaluation adds to a district’s work load. School leaders who must observe every teacher multiple times annually, document those observations, and hold multiple conversations about learning goals and instructional practices may add several hundred hours of work per year to already-full Outlook calendars. Typically, what was omitted from the legislative action that spawned reforms was the process–and funding–for districts to have the capacity to implement these new teacher evaluation practices. Additionally, now that schools in many states must tie merit-based performance pay or contract renewal to results of teacher evaluations, districts must be more precise and consistent in both their documentation and procedures than ever before if they are to survive legal challenges.

So how does a school district implement an efficient, yet cost-effective, evaluation system that might actually be worth the time we’ll spend on it without adding to the many challenges that educators already face on a daily basis?

I never thought I would say this, but for our district, technology saved the day. Technology represents the real game-changer when it comes to teacher evaluations; simply put, it represents our only chance to make performance examination—let alone evaluation–of this magnitude possible, helpful, and respectful.

Technology has made evaluation a transparent and collaborative process that fosters professional examination of practice. By streamlining, organizing, and simplifying the evaluation process, an online platform helps users spend less energy on the “task” and more energy addressing the ultimate goal – strengthening the conversations we have and questions we ask and answer about what should happen in each classroom.

We reviewed 20 teacher evaluation solutions before selecting Standard For Success to assist us in meeting these lofty expectations. The rubrics and additional features it contains are based on a state’s particular model for evaluation, which varies throughout the country. It allows us to complete self-assessments, script classroom observations, code what we see to a rubric of high expectations, review and analyze professional strengths or needs, track learning goals, collect teacher artifacts, document professional conversations about our work, and consistently share all data collected with each teacher in real time.

This new evaluation law made teachers understandably anxious. Early in the transition to the new evaluation system, we constantly reminded teachers, “Just do what you do,” as we tried to help them think about having frequent observers in their classroom. While this advice didn’t completely calm everyone’s nerves, I hope it communicated that we know they are talented professionals doing a hard job well. Examining their work doesn’t change that fact. In fact, it has often allowed us to celebrate more specifically so many aspects of great practice that we find in action. I believe the choice of a good software tool that made our scripts, links to the rubric, and comments all transparent made accepting the implications of the new law on work teachers have done for years far less stressful. There is nothing secretive about this process; all the data is visible and teachers have the opportunity to upload artifacts to their own account if they think we are missing some aspect.

When you work with kids and you’re out there taking the kinds of risks you should in your practice, not everything will be rubric-perfect. In my best moments as a teacher, I think an observer would have been able to collect plenty of evidence of things I could improve. We’ve shared this with teachers, and we’ve told them that we’ll collect lots of data points—and that at year’s end, we’ll look at mode and trends in that data. The software shows the full body of evidence building along the way with plenty of time to talk about concerns. This isn’t always enough to keep people from feeling anxious or defensive, but it helps teachers understand we respect and honor what they do, and shows we know it takes more than one look, a few data points, or one good day to even begin to capture the work of a teacher in action.

This teacher evaluation tool is not an educational fix-all. It’s not pretending to be a tool to reform education, and it doesn’t promise to revolutionize student test scores or “hold teachers accountable” for work they’ve done for years. What it does do beautifully is allow us to collect information about complex professional practice, analyze it thoughtfully, and work together for continuous improvement. Now that’s excellence.

Jenny Froehle is an administrator at Union Elementary School in Indiana’s Zionsville Community Schools

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