Reaching for Better with Teacher Evaluation and Support

By: Jim Furman

Earlier this year, the New York Times asked, “Will This Be a Lost Year for America’s Children?” Many schools began the 2020-21 school year online, including many of our nation’s largest school districts. Those of us focused on improving support and learning opportunities for teachers could ask the same for our country’s 3.7 million educators.

If we take the opportunity to make this a transformative year for our teachers and the profession by focusing on support rather than evaluation, the year will not be lost. We can create a system of teacher evaluation and support that is better than our old normal.

Throughout this public health crisis, teachers across the country have risen to the challenge, despite not having been adequately trained to teach online. Those who have returned to school buildings are putting their lives on the line and nothing about their classrooms or instruction is close to what was normal a year ago. Acknowledging that we are still in the midst of a crisis and that most administrators have not been adequately trained to observe remote instruction, states need to provide flexibility in their evaluation system requirements this year.

State departments and policy makers should pause, relax, or rethink their evaluation policies during this time as many did in the spring. In Illinois, a coalition of unions issued guidance on evaluation that emphasized growth and learning. The state board of education followed by announcing that, while it continues to believe in the importance of summative evaluation, it will be flexible this year. This approach acknowledges the uncertainty of this school year and the variety of approaches that districts are taking to instruction. Providing flexibility for districts to work with local educators to make decisions about evaluation is the right move.

The abrupt shifts caused by the coronavirus outbreak have also emphasized many gaps in how we support teachers’ growth—shortcomings that have been known all too well for all too long by teachers and school leaders. In the old normal, the teacher evaluation process was too often reduced to step-by-step instructions and time-consuming compliance exercises for evaluators. Evaluations were based on a narrow definition of student learning and lacked real support for improvement.

We’re overdue for a new conception of teacher evaluation—one that treats student learning and development as more than test scores and teachers’ work as highly specialized and non-routine. One that is designed explicitly to support great teaching, rather than to identify and address poor performance. As the Chinese proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.

In many ways, teacher evaluation looks much like it did after No Child Left Behind required states to ensure every child is taught by a “highly qualified” teacher. Teacher Evaluation 1.0 narrowly defined teachers’ effectiveness by their academic qualifications and content knowledge—not on their ability to use that knowledge to boost student learning. Despite stagnant student test scores, 90 percent of teachers were considered “highly qualified” under NCLB. Today, states report that the overwhelming majority of their teachers are “effective” or “highly effective.”

Teacher Evaluation 2.0, incentivized by Race to the Top funding windfalls, placed student learning at the heart of evaluation. It encouraged policymakers and decision makers to acknowledge the variability in teacher effectiveness from classroom to classroom, an important paradigm shift, but it did so in ways that left teachers feeling demoralized and their profession diminished. It also failed to improve results for students or capture the full breadth of student learning and development. Standardized test data is but one piece of evidence of student learning and its accuracy has rightly been questioned. Researchers recently found that value-added models showed teacher effects on student height to be nearly as large as that for math and reading achievement.

While making necessary adjustments to meet the current moment, here’s how we might begin reaching for better in the long-term.

First, state policymakers should use their broadening powers under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to emphasize the important role formative feedback plays in teachers’ professional growth. Student assessment data and classroom observation should be data points in professional conversations with teachers’ goals for themselves and their students at the core. Teachers value this data when it becomes an input to help them hone their skills.

Second, state education decision makers should reframe their teacher evaluation systems as part of a larger professional learning process. We need to reject the notion that evaluation systems’ data should be used primarily by district leaders to make employment decisions. Instead, evaluation should be flexible, adaptable to the many types of teachers and teaching experience in the profession. It should include teachers’ reflections on their own performance and their goals for the future. And it should emphasize professional learning conversations over scores from observations. (Yes, even those based on the Framework for Teaching). We’ve been proud to work with educators in the state of Wisconsin, where their Educator Effectiveness model has already been moving in this direction.

Finally, we should support teachers to build their own expertise and the knowledge base around teacher practice and quality. This isn’t a job that should be left to researchers and think tanks. As Jal Mehta notes, part of the professionalization of teaching is creating opportunities for collaboration between teachers and researchers that result in new knowledge to advance teachers’ professional growth and boost student learning.

We need to acknowledge that our well-intentioned efforts around teacher evaluation have reduced teachers’ job satisfaction while doing little to improve student learning. Remaining committed to systems and policies during the current uncertainty that were not working before it began would be a mistake. As we reimagine what education looks like during and after the pandemic, our teachers deserve to be treated as the essential professionals they are. That should entail support and collaboration to become the best teacher they can be. To thrive during this time and what will follow, they need support, not scores.

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Dr. Jim Furman is the Executive Director of the Danielson Group. He began his career as a middle school English teacher in New Orleans, and later served as a faculty member in English Education at the University of Delaware and the University of New Orleans before returning to the classroom as a teacher and teacher leader in Denver. He has coached future, novice, and veteran teachers from Kindergarten through 12th grade in literacy, social studies, math, and science; supported school leaders in urban schools to build and improve systems of teacher professional development; redesigned teacher preparation programs, field experiences, and assessments; and conducted research focused on teacher preparation and adolescent literacy.

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