George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Designing More Equitable Ways to Evaluate Teachers

To help ensure that teacher evaluations are balanced and have a meaningful impact, consider more creative and collaborative methods.

April 4, 2024
Gregg Vignal / Alamy

Although there are state mandates regarding the evaluation of public school teachers, school districts have quite a bit of flexibility in how they choose to implement the guidelines. These subsequent district decisions are critically important, as they can have a direct impact on teachers’ job satisfaction. 

As teachers create many of their own materials and are faced with multiple decisions each day, when observers take notes about their performance and then quantify it with a score, it can feel like a judgment of their worth. Reimagining the possibilities for teacher evaluations, particularly in the midst of a teacher shortage, is just one of many crucial steps toward increased teacher retention.

Lead with Humility

Observation processes may vary from district to district, but they all generally involve some iteration of this: An administrator previews a teacher’s lesson plan, observes the teacher’s class (either announced or unannounced), writes up a report, assigns a score, and then meets with the teacher to offer feedback for improvement. 

This process may seem innocuous enough, but often there is nothing further from the truth. Observers could have a greater impact if they take the time to reflect on how they might be perceived by teachers by asking themselves questions such as the following:

  • Do I have the same amount of classroom teaching experience as the teacher I am observing?
  • Have I taught children in a classroom setting in the last five years?   
  • Did I ever teach virtually or in the aftermath of a global pandemic?
  • Did I ever record grades on an online platform under the watchful eyes of students and parents, and did I deal with the onslaught of emails that inevitably followed?
  • Did I have to contend with a preponderance of student cell phone use?
  • Did my students each have a school-issued device?
  • Did I have to consider how to preserve academic integrity with the advent of artificial intelligence?

If any of the answers to the above questions are “no,” it may inspire observers to approach future observations with a dose of humility and an inquisitive stance. As teaching is not a static profession, best teaching practices aren’t necessarily transferable across decades, grade levels, and varying demographics, as it requires a continual response to cultural shifts, generational changes, and students’ ever-changing needs.

Thus, the discrepancies between the experiences of observers and teachers not only can create a chasm that breeds resentment, but also they can make it difficult for teachers to welcome (let alone implement) the feedback given. Educational leader Tom Sherrington writes about how he spent many “wasted, pointless hours trying to craft well-written, pithy, insightful lesson reports to send to a teacher after a lesson observation.” Upon reflection, he came to this realization: “To presume your feedback will be meaningful, received and understood and, welcomed or not, acted upon—it’s just weird; folly. And deeply deeply wrong. Above all, it just seems, well… rude.” If the goal of observations is to promote teacher growth, the current system could use a reboot.

Adopt a Collaborative Approach

A brief visit to a teacher’s classroom isn’t sufficient to capture the complex calculus involved in the dynamics of a lesson. As John Hattie explains in an interview with Tes magazine, “You can’t simply watch a teacher and understand how and why they make those decisions; you have to hear them think, evaluate and adapt.”

In order to glean a fuller picture of a lesson and insight about the students, leaders can consider implementing the following steps:

  • During a pre-meeting with the teacher, the observer reviews the lesson plan and listens to how and why the teacher made those decisions. This meeting provides an opportunity for feedback, during which the observer can offer insight based on their knowledge of research-based best practices, combined with their expertise gleaned from their experience and numerous classroom visits.
  • During the observation, the observer transcribes what they see and hear and separately jots down thoughts and ideas in preparation for a post-conference with the teacher.
  • Within the next 24–48 hours, the observer shares the transcription with the teacher, so they can review it prior to the scheduled post-conference. This way, both the observer and the teacher will be equally prepared to discuss areas of success and ideas for improvement. This conversation also offers the teacher the opportunity to provide insight about the moment-to-moment decisions made during the lesson that were likely invisible to the observer at the time. Then together they can cocreate goals and action steps designed to support the teacher in their professional growth.
  • Following this meeting, the teacher writes a reflection about the lesson considering the observer’s commentary while the observer writes up their feedback based on their notes from the lesson, coupled with the follow-up conversation with the teacher.

Reconsider Scoring Practices

If the goal of the teacher evaluation system is to improve teaching and learning, assigning scores accomplishes neither. It may do exactly the opposite, as the emotional resonance from the score can become a barrier that impedes improvement. 

Districts can be creative in exploring the many alternatives to grading, such as measuring teacher performance throughout the year on a growth continuum, similar to evidence-based grading, which leaves a lot of space for feedback, conversation, and proposed action steps. If state mandates ultimately insist upon a score, districts can use the data from the year to assign a cumulative score at the end of the year. Educator Kim Marshall recently released “The Marshall Teacher Evaluation Rubric,” accessible by going to the “Kim’s Writing” section on the Marshall Memo website and following the link “Rubrics for end-of-year evaluation of teachers and principals.” This rubric aligns with many of the principles outlined here and is designed help observers, in Marshall’s words, “continuously grow as coaches of effective instruction.”

There is an abundance of research to support a collaborative leadership approach to help professionals grow. Entrepreneur Liz Wiseman advocates that leaders’ fundamental role is to multiply the intelligence of those they serve, organizational psychologist Adam Grant advises that the best way to effect enduring change is to “level the playing field,” and instructional coach Elena Aguilar offers conversational sentence stems to put these ideas into action.

As educators, when we work alongside each other in the best interests of students, we can work together toward enduring change.

We all get better by sharing our practices. Administrators, what are you doing to help ensure more equitable teacher evaluations at your school? Please add to the conversation in the comments.

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