Don't skip this step: Designing evaluations of teachers starts with trust

Where do teachers fit into the current landscape of education reform? The results of the recent Met Life survey should surprise no one: Teachers’ morale is at an all-time low. The causes are not hard to see, and include a combination of budget cuts and layoffs along with a decade of NCLB-inspired scripted curricula and a steady diet of union bashing in the education press.

It is ironic that all of this comes at a time when the mantra of “good teaching matters” is on everyone’s lips. Is there a way to reform education, survive budget cuts, and also re-inspire teachers and reinvigorate the teaching profession? The answer is not clear, but the stakes could hardly be higher. The future of California depends on ensuring that about 280,000 people continue to love teaching. Most of them are already at work in classrooms. Do any of the reforms currently being tested have the potential to capture the imagination and channel the creative energy of this key group? Does anyone working on these reforms even have this goal in mind?


Here’s the problem as well as the opportunity: An unlikely but effective laugh line that works with both teachers and administrators is to ask them whether their current teacher evaluation process communicates a vision of excellence that inspires teachers. Some people don’t just laugh, they guffaw.

That’s the point: If we began the redesign of teacher evaluation with the goal of creating a shared vision of what excellent teaching looks like and how teachers will be supported to achieve it, we can take a step toward re-inspiring teachers. Of course, that is not the approach to this topic that gets the attention of the media (where the focus is on firing incompetent teachers) or of most policymakers (who keep worrying about the role of test scores). But, as is often the case, there are school districts that are taking a more innovative approach. These are largely smaller districts with a collaborative culture whose leaders from both labor and management are convinced that what they have been doing needs an overhaul. Several such districts have made the choice to retool their teacher evaluation process and to do so ahead of any policy mandate. Policymakers would do well to take the time to understand both the goals of such efforts and the lessons that are emerging, since the wrong set of mandates can easily stifle the emergence of promising practices.

The organization I lead, Pivot Learning Partners, is a nonprofit whose mission includes working with districts to develop and implement promising new approaches to improving teaching and learning. We have partnered with a growing group of districts working on redesigning teacher and, sometimes, principal evaluation systems. Here is some of what we are noticing about the work these districts are doing:

  • They understand that effective evaluation systems rely on high levels of trust, and as a result they design a collaborative process that includes both teachers and administrators and that has trust-building as an explicit goal. Such a process will likely look different in different districts. Any new policy should support – but not constrain – such a collaborative process.
  • They begin not with the question of how to measure teaching excellence, but rather with the far more fundamental and engaging question of what is being measured. What are the dimensions of good teaching? What does it look like in practice? Importantly for policymakers, tools like the California Standards for the Teaching Profession inform, but do not short circuit, this discussion. One teacher’s comment at the end of a highly collaborative process of exploring these issues was “That was some of the best professional development I’ve ever experienced.” That’s also a big step in the right direction. On the basis of what we’ve seen, policymakers should not mandate any tool – including the state Standards for the Teaching Profession – that encourages locals to think they can skip these sometimes difficult conversations.
  • They treat the shift from the old to a new system as something that needs to happen over a period of time. Policymakers: Deadlines help, but unrealistic deadlines are deadly.
  • Finally, these discussions do get to the issue of evidence of student learning, but teachers’ skepticism of test scores is profound, as is the damage done to trust by steps taken in high-profile districts such as publishing teachers’ names and rankings on value-added measures in the newspaper. Policymakers need to put the onus on locals to design systems that include evidence of student learning that reflects the vision of excellent teaching that is at the center of the process. Nothing else matters as much as this.

I believe that some of the reforms being debated today have the potential to address the problem of plummeting teacher morale. Redesigning teacher evaluation in particular has the potential to communicate an inspiring vision of teaching. But reforms will not have this kind of impact unless they are designed with this goal in mind.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Filed under: Commentary, Evaluations


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6 Responses to “Don't skip this step: Designing evaluations of teachers starts with trust”

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  1. Stacey on May 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm05/14/2012 12:49 pm

    • 000

    Why is this Met Life survey treated like such novel news?  The causes of low morale are common, as are the solutions.

  2. Gary Ravani on Apr 26, 2012 at 7:22 pm04/26/2012 7:22 pm

    • 000

    Teachers don’t necessarily take the SAT. You can move quite nicely through the CSU and even UC system without taking that test.  A little research will show that grades received in HS are the best predictor of college success. That’s why a number of major universities have given up the requirements for the SAT.
    By the way, good thinking Merrill. Trust, as opposed to the bludgeon of VAM scores, is the surest road to any sound education policy. There is no getting around the fact that teachers are the ones in the classrooms with the kids. The best research shows that administrators who work collaboratively with their teachers are the ones who really drive improved student learning.

  3. Gina Marie on Apr 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm04/26/2012 7:17 pm

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    OK, and let’s have rigorous evaluations of administrators, too. Not some shallow self evaluation checklist. How do they support and help teachers?  Do they even see that as their role?
    A friend of mine, her son is now prepping for the STAR tests. This child is throwing up his breakfast. He is chewing his fingernails. He starts crying for “no apparent reason.”  He’s working on his three year plan and is terrified it might not work out for him. What. Good. does. this. do.

  4. navigio on Apr 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm04/26/2012 2:06 pm

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    STAR results require context. Context can invariably ‘explain’ the results for those in the know, but rarely does it justify them for the outside world. This is probably the primary source of teacher skepticism, and justifiably so, because a weak administration will succumb to the community. And those with an agenda will use that against teachers. But I have also even seen district-level assessments that have varied wildly within a single year for no other reason than how they happened to have been designed. That variability was accompanied by a skepticism that the district’s real goal was merely to be able to argue that some policy they implemented has ‘suddenly turned things around’.
    It is true teachers laugh about this stuff. Fixing teacher moral is simple. Support them. Give them good administration that believes in them, and the resources to do their jobs. Read the Gates teacher survey and check out the section on teacher retention incentives. Everything at the top of the list is related to doing whats best for students. But we tend to focus instead that everything is their fault and we need evaluations as a way to prove that. Talking past each other?

  5. el on Apr 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm04/26/2012 1:14 pm

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    STAR student test scores are not designed to measure teaching. Most teachers I know are interested in their scores, and try to understand what is going on, but I would not want test scores to be used either as a reason to dismiss OR retain a teacher. Either way ties the hands of the administration too much. It’s a great starting point in the conversation… “Let’s figure out what is going on here. Do the kids not know the material? Was it not addressed? Were the kids absent? Did they master it in class assessments?” or “Let’s figure out what is going on here; these scores are amazing compared to last year. What do you think is different?” And then that all leads to, “How does this inform what you’ll do next quarter/semester/year?”

  6. Chris Stampolis on Apr 26, 2012 at 12:13 pm04/26/2012 12:13 pm

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    You write that “teachers’ skepticism of test scores is profound.”

    However, almost every teacher in a California classroom today took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in order to gain University admission.

    Then they had to get through four years of college/university to earn a Bachelor’s Degree.

    I don’t understand why teachers would have “skepticism of test scores.”

    A child’s standardized test score is not the be-all-end-all of one’s life.  But those achievement marks provide an assessment of how the child is progressing on some measurable academic skills.  It’s how the teachers interpret the test results that makes a difference for the child.

    Neighborhood public schools need to offer competitive value in comparison to the option of homeschooling or private schools or publicly-funded charter schools.  Many parents make an active choice to enroll their children in the local public school district, when other options are available.  Public schools can be schools of choice, not schools of last or only resort.

    Teaching at a public school can be a joyful career – and if it’s not joyful for some teachers, they realistically should ponder other options.  There is bureauocracy to navigate in almost any workplace.  Those who teach anywhere in the public school K-12 world know they do more than teach kids – they also have to interact with parents, District administrators, educator peers and supervisors at their school and other schools, and community representatives of many stripes.

    It can be a good job with more time off than any other profession.  Tiring at times?  Yes.  Challenging to be with children all day?  Of course.  Difficult to navigate the multicultural landscape of California?  Often.

    But, still a good career with decent pay in most cases.  If someone would find more joy as a stockbroker than as a classroom teacher, then it’s time for discernment and choices.  We can’t all be firefighters and baseball players  and chefs and actors and scientists and architects and teachers at the same time.

    If teachers are to be valued as professionals, they need to share more about how teachers’ efforts should be evaluated.  Even if submitted under pseudonyms, let’s see some posts about suggested evaluation criteria.  The elected school boards are the ones with statutory authority to adopt the frameworks for evaluation.  Perhaps we can spur more discussion from educators about how evaluations should be set forth.

    – Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, West Valley-Mission Community College District
    State Board Member, California Community College Trustees
    408-771-6858  / 408-390-4748 /

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