A Call For Community in Teacher Evaluation

I recently attended a session with Charlotte Danielson who highlighted the need for better systems of teacher evaluation. One of the highlights of her discussion was when she simplified the reality of evaluating teaching and learning with the following quote:

Classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented….The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during a natural disaster.

~Lee Shulman, the Wisdom of Teaching

The quote help brings home the idea that the complexity of the teaching profession requires a variety of methods to assessing teacher performance related to classroom teaching. This system must include multiple measures and is best when those measures are clearly established in collaboration with the teacher. The work to support teachers in the process of improvement should never be isolated to the simple format of teacher observation. Obviously, it needs to include classroom observation, however, principals need to broaden their systems of performance review to include what I call collegial conversations and documentation review while ensuring that they are building open communities of trust and continuous improvement. More on that later…

The first set of questions become: Are principals truly ready for this type of work? Can any one person have the capacity to observe, coach, and routinely resource a potentially diverse group of teachers to true exemplary practice? What other professions have such a broad expectation of their management in their practice? Through my work at ReVision Learning, I have been working to identify the principal training that can generate the types of leaders who can:

  • Look for and describe quality instruction according to rubrics;
  • Look for and describe teacher performance outside of the classroom as part of overall teacher performance;
  • Engage in conversations with teachers that drive mutual learning and respect;
  • Resource teachers with the right type of information, relationships, and professional development i.e. create environments for teachers to be teachers.

So far, I am not ashamed to say, this is one difficult task. Now, that is not to say that we do not have high quality administrators in our schools but instead that the task of supporting “the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…” is a complex one itself. When we consider the day in the life of a typical school administrator and the demands placed upon them from central offices, it is hard to imagine the way in which true impact on teaching effectiveness can be had through the work of a single administrator, especially considering that most supervise more than a handful of teachers. The average in the schools with which I am working is 16 in fact.

So, more on my initial statements…

What needs to become an active part of teacher evaluation systems currently being rewritten across the country is routine, well-designed use of constructive dialogue and sharing. I believe that routine opportunities for conversation around teaching practice are at the core of the change within that practice. Schools need to function as learning centers for teachers allowing them to constantly improve their craft through on-going review and practice of their own and each other’s work. Review of lesson plans, activities, assessments, and other products of the teaching service should be routine. Protocols for review such as those found with the National School Reform Faculty become powerful vehicles for these reviews. Call it what you want – professional learning communities, critical friends groupings, data teams – I do not care, just get the conservation happening.

Some have been advocating the use of “Social Capital” strategies (The Missing Link to School Reform), which promote the importance of peer-to-peer relationships in schools to support teacher improvement and student achievement. The findings in the studies cited are exciting and cannot be ignored when considering how we are designing systems of evaluation. I am not willing just yet to jump on board with removing the principal or other supervisory personnel completely from the system (at least right away) but it does seem to support the idea that not just one person can truly evaluate such a complex task as teaching. The outcomes from the studies in Pittsburgh that are cited in the article emphasized the importance of the principal to execute the types of external relationships that support teachers in their work. This idea is truly under appreciated in most principal training programs. Some programs have been exploring Social Entrepreneurialism (RLRP) in their curriculum and this trend can certainly help to support a new type of leader able to secure quality external relationships with her/his school as described in the study.

The long and short of this is that we need to be working towards the establishment of policy that promotes the development of communities of professionals that ultimately make teacher evaluation unnecessary. Yes I do understand that this is a long way off but remember some of the most successful countries in the world for education outcomes do not have a teacher evaluation system in place (think Finland).

Margaret Wheatley has promoted for almost four decades the importance of the community in growing, nurturing and supporting organizations of all kinds. In her new book Walk Out Walk On she has stated that in her review of seven different communities around the world “we discover that every community has the ingenuity, intelligence, and inventiveness to solve their seemingly insolvable problems.”

Let’s remember the entirety of the educational community at our disposal as we continue to explore the development of our nation’s teacher effectiveness policy.

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