School Leadership

5 Ways to Improve Teacher Evaluation Systems

Using teacher evaluation to ensure quality teaching requires organizing it as an opportunity for growth.

A teacher and a principal discuss the teacher's evaluation in the school library
©iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Current approaches to assessing teacher effectiveness aren’t working. The instruments used for observation are overly complicated, and training for observers is often inadequate. Furthermore, the challenges associated with the use of student achievement data, and the political nature in which these processes were mandated in the first place, all make this a very challenging problem to address. Indeed, a recent report by the Brookings Institution suggests that “teacher observations have been a waste of time and money.”

But evaluation systems are a central to ensuring quality teaching. A meaningful evaluation system benefits both teachers and students. How might we leverage evaluation to build systems of support that not only help teachers reflect upon and improve their practice but also ensure that all students are leaving our schools with the knowledge and skills they need to live the lives they deserve?

Recent research indicates that instructional coaching is the most effective strategy for improving instructional practice. And isn’t the evaluation cycle really just a formal coaching cycle? If not, why not? To quote former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, “If teacher evaluation feels like a ‘gotcha’ system, it won’t work.”

Here are five specific approaches to redesigning meaningful evaluation systems toward improving teachers’ practice.

1. Streamline and implement tools flexibly. Current evaluation rubrics are simply too big—observers can’t provide meaningful feedback to teachers on dozens of indicators based on a few 30- to 60-minute observations. Streamlined tools like TNTP’s Core Teaching Rubric and the Insight Core Framework from Insight Education Group can home in on a narrow, prioritized set of instructional expectations to more effectively focus the observation process. 

2. Design systems as a formative feedback process. Moving from “gotcha”—a compliance-driven process with a single score at the end of the year—to a growth-oriented process requires more formative, ongoing feedback from those tasked with evaluating teachers.

For example, in addition to being observed by administrators, teachers at Denver Public Schools are now observed by peers and teacher leaders as well, enabling more frequent observations and feedback conversations. Teachers have reacted positively to these changes—they appreciate the new focus on their ongoing growth rather than an observation score. Meaningful feedback can help them continually improve their practice, a goal to which all evaluation systems should aspire. 

3. Support evaluators to be coaches. Evaluators may not have the skills needed to provide coaching, so professional learning opportunities that emphasize effective coaching and support will be needed. Fortunately, there are many approaches that can work here: Video observation exercises, classroom walk-throughs, and deliberate practice with effective coaching conversations can be implemented with some frequency. Likewise, instructional coaches should be included as part of the evaluation process. After all, they are likely collecting the most data on the instructional practice of the educators they support.

4. Involve more people. Evaluation systems will never work if we continue to rely on a single school administrator (or small administrative team) to evaluate all teachers. In addition to instructional coaches, as mentioned above, peers can offer valuable insights to help teachers improve their practice. Teachers have shown more growth, and are generally happier with evaluation processes, when they are involved in both giving and receiving feedback.

This can be done informally with a few colleagues who are also interested in deepening their own practice or more formally as part of the coaching cycle. Engaging others in the process will increase the frequency and breadth of feedback conversations, reduce the inefficiencies of relying on a single observer, and create opportunities for more frequent, formative conversations about classroom practice. 

5. Use video tools to allow educators to focus on meaningful feedback conversations. The biggest complaint I hear from administrators in the field is that robust evaluation systems take too much time. Video can help educators streamline the process: Teachers can record themselves and submit videos to be viewed later by evaluators and/or peers for observation and coaching. 

Additionally, tech platforms provide an opportunity to effectively manage coaching and evaluation processes while also collecting data for providing targeted support and professional learning.

There’s no doubt that this work is hard, but a focus and commitment to making teacher evaluation work for teachers might actually be what we need. The work of Kathryn Procope, principal of Howard University Middle School, gives me hope. She has transformed the evaluation process in her school to be one of ongoing feedback and coaching, and has done it through many of the points above. By leveraging both in-person and video observations, engaging regularly with teachers in the feedback process, providing bite-sized feedback on a narrow set of expectations, and focusing on the formative growth of her teachers, she has blurred the line between evaluation and support.

The students in our classrooms deserve the best teaching that we can provide, and their teachers deserve our best thinking and support. Most of us have been teachers, and few of us rave about the support that we received as teachers. It’s time for us to take the opportunity to give teachers—and students—the support they want, need, and deserve.