Gary Houchens expressed skepticism about the ability of Kentucky’s new teacher evaluation system (PGES) to effectively differentiate teacher performance back in 2013. And he has noted since that he remains skeptical.
Houchens cites research that suggests that not much changes in terms of measurable teacher performance no matter the evaluation tool. More specifically, he notes that despite spending significant dollars on new systems, many states still weren’t seeing much differentiation among teachers on evaluations.
Last Spring I wrote about a New York Times article exploring the results of new teacher evaluations in multiple states, including Florida, Michigan, Tennessee, Connecticut, and Washington, DC. After investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours in new evaluation systems designed to better distinguish levels of teacher performance, these states found that principals were still rating more than 90 percent of all teachers as effective or highly effective. Only tiny percentages of teachers were identified as “ineffective” or “developing.”
It would seem these efforts were a monumental waste of time and money with only a handful of possible explanations for the results.
Houchens then goes on to note that leadership at the principal level is what makes an impact on teaching practice, regardless of the evaluation model used.
Furthermore, Murphy and colleagues identify four larger categories of principal behaviors that make a difference in teaching quality:
…providing actionable feedback to teachers…developing communities of practice in which teachers share goals, work, and responsibility for student outcomes…offering abundant support for the work of teachers..and creating systems in which teachers have the opportunity to routinely develop and refine their skills.
None of these principal activities must rely on the teacher evaluation system for their effectiveness. In fact, these activities are most likely high-leverage behaviors even under the old, clunky teacher evaluation system. Perhaps we could save all this time and money we are currently investing in PGES and focus, instead, on leadership behaviors that really make a difference.
I want to zoom in on the actionable feedback piece of the research cited by Houchens. To me, that is the biggest shortcoming in most evaluation systems. That is, even if principals found areas for improvement for a specific teacher, directing them to ways to improve practice can at times prove difficult. Content-specific professional development may not be readily available, for example. Access to mentors and coaches is often limited, if it exists at all.
And, as Houchens notes, time constraints placed on principals may prevent them from providing the coaching/guidance teachers most need.
One of the biggest complainst I hear from teachers, regardless of the evaluation model used, is that professional development is not connected in any way to what’s written on the evaluation.
A teacher rated “meets expectations” (a 3 on Tennessee’s 1-5 teacher rating system), likely has earned 1s or 2s in some categories of the rubric. Yet the attendant professional development is simply not offered or available. That’s just one example of actionable feedback. So, teacher X now knows he is struggling in a few areas, but doesn’t know quite what to do to improve.
It could be something as simple as release time to observe other teachers who are strong where that teacher is weak. So, while mentors and coaches are helpful, the solution doesn’t necessarily have to carry a high cost.
Moreover, what is the cost of NOT investing in teachers to help them improve practice? First, it’s disrespectful to teachers as professionals. Professional educators want to improve their practice. An evaluation system that identifies areas for improvement but fails to provide actionable feedback on how to improve is insulting and demoralizing. Second, it’s not fair to students. School leaders know that a certain teacher needs help in specific areas, but that help is not provided. So, students continue to miss out on the best possible instruction.
How we treat teachers says a lot about how much we truly value our students. Treating them like professionals may carry costs in terms of both time and money. But those costs are worth it if we truly want every child to have access to a great education.
And, as Houchens notes, maybe instead of spending on fancy new evaluation systems with tremendous potential, we should spend on leadership development and training as well as provision of the feedback mechanisms that will truly improve instructional practice.
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