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Teacher Evaluation: A Starting Point for Action

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When a couple hundred educators, journalists, parents and researchers - including the L.A. Times reporter who worked on the controversial database of teacher ratings -- gathered at UC Berkeley on Monday to tackle the thorny issue of teacher evaluation, the biggest news was probably that the discussion remained - save a few cat-calls and much grumbling - mostly civil.

Emotions ran high and opinions differed starkly, but a couple of themes emerged. First, there's a lot on which we in the big, messy education community actually agree. Second, there's a whole lot we don't know - but need to figure out. And those are starting points we can work from.

Here are the key messages I took away, and on which (I can't say this enough) pretty much everyone agreed.

1. We don't have a clear, shared definition of what makes a good teacher - and we need one. If we're going to evaluate teachers, we need to know what we're looking for, right? And what student outcomes demonstrate that good learning has gone on? We all probably have a sense that we know good teaching when we see it. But we need to compare notes - and yes, probably data - to find some common threads. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, an administrator in the Oakland Unified School District, pointed out that great teaching may look different in the diverse, high-poverty communities she serves than in other settings.

I asked an array of panelists and audience members: what's one great measure of a good teacher? Their ideas overlap some and diverge some: they reflect the heart and soul of teaching.

2. We desperately need better measures of teacher effectiveness. The old ways and the new ways, alike, generally stink.

Despite the fact that the teachers in the room probably wanted to hurl chalkboard erasers at Jason Felch, the L.A. Times reporter, he gave an impassioned and empathetic critique of the old model: the 15-minute "drive-by" observation by the principal in the back of the classroom. "The result is teachers get almost no support," Felch said. "They get very little feedback about their performance. The teachers who are doing incredible work against all odds get no recognition. Teachers who are struggling almost uniformly want to do better ... and they get no help."

At the same time, our standardized tests shall I say this... A few tools shy of a full kit? Accuracy-challenged? I'll leave it to panelist Eric Hanushek of the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University: "We have some very bad tests." He added, aptly, "Teaching is much more complex than our analytical methods."

In truth, the tests aren't so terrible in and of themselves -- it's just that we're using them for giant purposes that way outstrip their narrow capabilities. A pair of UC Berkeley measurement experts on the panel laid out in dizzying detail the limitations of what test scores really tell us (for an explanation in plain English, see this story from Edutopia magazine). Even "value-added" measures (where we take students' test scores and calculate how much each teacher changed her students' performance, for better or worse, in a year), they said, are grossly imprecise. Scientifically speaking, the tests are "blunt instruments," said Professor Mark Wilson, but we're using them to assess individual people in fine detail. Plus, they gauge only one small slice of a student's preparation for life.

3. More rigorous observations and value-added scores from standardized tests both need to be part of teacher evaluations. No one in the room disputed this. Period.

Solution Seekers

The panelists suggested some promising new methods. Secondary science coach Anthony Cody touted the peer-assisted review program he has participated in within the Oakland schools. David Plank of Policy Analysis for California Education praised the portfolio evaluation used by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards - but that would take hundreds of millions of hours to do for every teacher in the country. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute pointed out that aside from education, no other profession, not banking or journalism or any other, has one person supervising 25 or 30 employees. So, no single solution is straightforward.

The question no one answered is: in the meantime, as we work toward a more coherent system, how should we evaluate teachers? UC Berkeley Professor Sophia Rabe-Hesketh, the other measurement expert, cited the gaping margin of error in calculating value-added scores and said simply, "do not use teacher value-added measures for high-stakes decisions, or for naming and shaming." Rothstein cautioned, "There are serious consequences of using one measure when you know it's not the whole picture, because it distorts the institution of education." But Hanushek and Felch both countered, essentially: if not value-added scores, then what?

Here's my appeal: we agree on a lot. We have the shared will and momentum to change our archaic systems to make education a better experience for teachers and students alike. As Rothstein said, this debate tends to be "filled with caricature and oversimplification." So -- enough of that.

Let's seize this opportunity and run with it. Let's embrace our common goals and jointly appeal to policy makers to create conditions that enable us develop creative solutions, rather than boxing us in. Let's focus on working together to untangle the puzzles of what we need to know about teachers and students, and how we can achieve that.

-- Grace Rubenstein, Edutopia Senior Producer

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Chris Lindsay's picture

Many of the video clips included opinions about what makes a good teacher that use the very subjective criterion of "student engagement." What does that mean? What does it look like? And more importantly, how do you assess it without falling into the standardized tests pit again? If compensation is going to be based on teacher performance (as some in the field have suggested) don't we owe it to those teachers to use objective criteria on which to assess their effectiveness?

Mike's picture

The effectiveness of a teacher should not be measured through test scores and public opinions. A teacher's effectiveness should be measured by their willingness and drive to educate the youth of our nation. It should be measured by their administration and district. An effective educator is someone that truly cares about his/her student. It is someone who is a life long learner and continuously educates themselves on ways to enhance their classroom and their teaching abilities. Every student is unique; therefore, every student has different areas of school where they excel in. Some are great test takers, others are not. Just because a student performs poorly on a test does not mean that their teacher failed to prepare them. It means that if there teacher is an effective teacher, they will learn from the child's mistakes and do everything the can to correct them in the future.

Anna's picture

Teacher assessment is such a touchy area. There is a percentage that say testing is the way to go, while others feel very strongly against this. The problem that I feel we face is the human aspect of teaching. Every year you are dealt a different hand. Your class is guaranteed to be different each year, and you will never have the exact same situation twice. It is next to impossible to establish a system that will always work for every teacher, every year, with every class. I am not sure that I know where to begin, but I do know that we need to address the fact that teaching is not a black and white career. There will always be gray in all areas of educating, assessment and growth. Perhaps if we begin there we will have a better end result.

LMM's picture

I value your point Mike. I also agree that just because a student does not test well, does not mean that a teacher has not done his/her job. Many of my students are engaged and interactive in my class discussions but are terrible at memorizing facts or definitions. Un fortunately there are times when parents are more focused on the grade of the paper/lesson than the understanding of the concept being taught. If I can make my point and my students can engage and understand to the best of their ability, then I know I have completed my task.

LMM's picture

You are exactly correct, If my principal used the same assessment last year as she did this year the follow-up would of been completly different. This years class is much more together, mature, oragnized than my last years class. There is absolutley no way possible that I could of used the same techniques that I have before. Each year has to be reinvented to meet the needs of the new environment, cultures, personalites and maturity levels. There is always a gray area and using the same assessment is not always possible. Although, it has been done it should be looked at more closely.

Gail St. HIll's picture

Teacher evaluation is a very delicate subject and should be treated with caution. The evaluation of teachers should be at all times done by an independent agency with out the teachers being aware that they are evaluated and by whom. This should be able to avoid subjectivity, halo effect and unprepared teachers.

The evaluation should address instruction of students, class preparation, student participation, attendance, punctuality and the input in school activities and staff development sessions.

I am also in agreement with Peter who spoke on effective teachers. .

Jodi's picture

I do not believe there is an adequate way to measure an effective teacher. I think we all know when we see a great teacher and the only way to measure such is by looking at the success of the students given various variable. An effective teacher cares about the success of his/her students and will do everything in their power to assist them to succeed, or the ultimate goal of graduation for most students. When I say success of the students, I do not just mean test scores but a student will be able to tell you themselves if they understand the content that is being taught to them and can deliver a positive, constructive feedbak on their teacher.

Robin Ruiz's picture
Robin Ruiz
Seventh Grade Inclusion Teacher from Central Florida

CHRIS LINDSEY WROTE on student engagement: What does that mean? What does it look like? And more importantly, how do you assess it without falling into the standardized tests pit again?
You know what student engagement is when the student is involved (engaged)(connected) with the instruction, lesson, activity,or project. You can hear the words, vocabulary associated with the lessons,- you see active participation-then the questions come when they further their scope of involvement. How can you assess their learning? Hmmm
Then Mike said: A teacher's effectiveness should be measured by their willingness and drive to educate the youth of our nation.
I know many teachers who have a willingness and drive to educate youth but they are NOT connecting all that with the student- day after day- the students are NOT learning too much. Willingness and Drive does NOT go to far in this day and age.
Assessment: We need to let all students know that assessment is a part of life. When a baby is born the first assessment they get is the APGAR Test. They take drivers test. Tests and assessments are a part of life. If a person doesn't test well- they need to overcome the difficulties that they face- they need to understand the test!

David's picture
Currently working on an MAT in Biology, Chemistry, and General Science

Has anyone looked into having students evaluate their teachers as part of the process? This is one of the main ways college professors are evaluated (along with research and publications), at least where I went to college. I know you're going to have the students that hate every teacher and the students that rate all teachers highly for whatever reason. But, wouldn't the average of evaluations from students give a fairly good indicator of how a teacher was doing? OK, I guess there could be the slacker that brings in cake and pizza everyday to get high marks from their students. It just seems to me that the most directly impacted "customers'" opinions are ignored in the education system. Let's face it. Teaching is a profession, but more specifically it is a service profession. For other service professions, there is a choice of who to go to and people usually choose a doctor, lawyer, or accountant based on recommendations from other users. Enough bad reviews from your clients and you're out of business. Personally, I intend to have students do end-of-year evaluations (or even quarterly evaluations) of my teaching just for my own purposes. If nothing else, it might increase student morale by letting them know that their opinion of how they're taught is at least being heard, if not considered.

JSpringer's picture
6th Grade S.S. Teacher

Teacher evaluations are a very touchy subject. My school district is still in negotiations with our teacher union. We are six months into the school year and they haven't settled on a contract or on the "language" of teacher evaluations. One of the issues our district and union are fighting over is student and parent input on teacher evaluations. One of my major questions is how do districts intend on collecting, evaluating and validating these types of input? Although I am in contact with my students' parents/guardians, our contact is not on a regular basis and in some cases there is no contact. So, it makes me curious as to how parent evaluations would be implemented. I also agree with Mike that teachers should be evaluated by administration and district administrators. These people are part of the education world, they know what goes into teaching, the expectations, and what quality teaching looks like.

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