(Brentt Brown, senior writer at Pivot Learning Partners, co-authored this post.)

Good teaching matters. Yet most teacher evaluations are compliance-driven checklists that have little or no impact on teaching and learning. The question is not whether teacher evaluation should be improved, but what the goals of the new processes we seek should be.

The received wisdom is that better evaluations would provide teachers with useful feedback and also improve decision making about tenure and retention. Critics also note that in a better system, evaluations would be more frequent, more focused on evidence of student learning, more effective at sorting teachers into multiple performance categories, and more valid, in that evaluators would be highly trained. All of these are worthy goals, but hardly inevitable ones. Not only are they expensive, but they fail to address the realities of the current approach to teacher evaluation. Here are some inconvenient truths that reformers of teacher evaluation must address.

  • Districts treat teacher evaluation as first and foremost a tool to remove a truly weak teacher. The resulting process is highly scripted because it is used to build a legal case in the event it is needed. While districts believe in the value of feedback and coaching for teachers, it is not clear that formal evaluation – with all of its legal constraints – is the best tool for this purpose.
  • Districts rarely remove teachers, in large part because of the high price tag. Better evaluation doesn’t change this, and those who believe that better evaluation processes will lead to more weak teachers being dismissed aren’t being realistic.
  • California has close to the highest ratio of teachers to administrators in the nation, which means that school principals are ridiculously overloaded. A better evaluation process won’t end the checklist approach if principals are the people doing the evaluating.
  • Staff development budgets for teachers have been slashed, and it may not make sense to invest heavily in training teacher evaluators when we cannot afford to train the teachers.
  • In the past, many large urban districts rarely opted not totenure a teacher, and this led to granting tenure to some weak teachers. In the vast majority of cases, this was a reaction to a chronic teacher shortage. If you can’t staff your classrooms, you will tenure the folks you’ve got. The current hiring climate will change this situation without a better teacher evaluation process.

I believe that better teacher evaluation is worth working on, but we need to rethink the goals.

What if the goal of teacher evaluation were to communicate and foster a shared vision of excellence, one that would guide and inspire teachers?This is the starting point for the North Bay Training Collaborative for Strengthening Teacher and Principal Evaluation, a project of Pivot Learning Partners, funded by the Full Circle Fund, which brings together teams from almost a dozen districts to take on this question. The process that Pivot Learning has used with this group of districts – and that it is using with others around the state – includes:

  • Recognizingthat redesigning teacher evaluations can be contentious and that teachers and union representatives must be involved;
  • Challenging teams to study and learn from both research and examples from districts around the country;
  • Encouraging districts to develop their own vision of teaching excellence;
  • Keeping the idea of evidence of student learning on the table, while promoting a broader discussion about what would constitute evidence that students were learning rigorous content. This approach leads to a serious consideration of multiple measures instead of a dead-end discussion about test scores and the statistics behindvalue-added approaches;
  • Acknowledging that if useful feedback to teachers is the goal, then the most useful feedback will always come from other teachers, not from an administrator. This means that the vision of excellence and rubrics associated with it must be used broadly in the district by teachers as well as administrators.

It is too soon to determine what will come of the collaborative and inclusive approach suggested above, or for that matter from the more scripted approach being taken in districts receiving federal school improvement grants (SIGs).What is notable is how different the conversation sounds – more cautious perhaps, but also nuanced – when the North Bay Collaborative meets than when teacher evaluation is discussed by policymakers or in the media. This disconnect is hardly new, but in this case what it signals matters.

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 BayArea School 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.

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  1. Ed 10 years ago10 years ago

    I agree Chris, but he forgot to consult the Government Code, Section 3543.2, which requires that the evaluation system be bargained with the union. The scope of representation shall be limited to matters relating to wages, hours of employment, and other terms and conditions of employment. “Terms and conditions of employment” mean health and welfare benefits as defined by Section 53200, leave, transfer and reassignment policies, safety conditions of employment, class size, procedures to be used … Read More

    I agree Chris, but he forgot to consult the Government Code, Section 3543.2, which requires that the evaluation system be bargained with the union.
    The scope of representation shall be limited to matters relating to wages, hours of employment, and other terms and conditions of employment. “Terms and conditions of employment” mean health and welfare benefits as defined by Section 53200, leave, transfer and reassignment policies, safety conditions of employment, class size, procedures to be used for the evaluation of employees, organizational security pursuant to Section 3546, procedures for processing grievances pursuant to Sections 3548.5, 3548.6, 3548.7, and 3548.8, the layoff of probationary certificated school district employees, pursuant to Section 44959.5 of the Education Code, and alternative compensation or benefits for employees adversely affected by pension limitations pursuant to Section 22316 of the Education Code, to the extent deemed reasonable and without violating the intent and purposes of Section 415 of the Internal Revenue Code. In addition, the exclusive representative of certificated personnel has the right to consult on the definition of educational objectives, the determination of the content of courses and curriculum, and the selection of textbooks to the extent such matters are within the discretion of the public school employer under the law. All matters not specifically enumerated are reserved to the public school employer and may not be a subject of meeting and negotiating, provided that nothing herein may be construed to limit the right of the public school employer to consult with any employees or employee organization on any matter outside the scope of representation. (Emphasis added)

    The requirement for union approval should be removed so that boards may act as intended (and advocated by Chris).  School district governing boards should work with teachers to develop evaluation systems, rather than imposing systems on teachers; evidence proves that teacher input and involvement in their evaluation and development strengthens both the process and the outcomes.  Accordingly, teachers should have a voice in ensuring their evaluation accurately ties to their stated goals and objectives.
     
    However, embedding the systems in collective bargaining agreements or giving union leaders veto power over the final product does not actually have that effect.  The reality is that the structure of unions and the way they are organized makes them systematically inappropriate for driving the decision-making for evaluations.  Union leaders are legally obligated to represent the interests of all of their members, including ineffective members.  Even if union leaders express an interest in quality, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their organization to enhance unity and protect low performers.  As a result, union leadership, or the vocal minority of teachers, disproportionately influences the evaluation process to skew toward interests that conflict with those of high performing or promising teachers.  From my tenure in the classroom, I believe the majority of classroom teachers deeply value strong colleagues and a culture of excellence,  but the ethic of high standards becomes lost in the process when the union expends time, effort, and money fighting for the lowest performers.
     
    Stated simply, labor leadership has a conflict of interest when it comes to evaluation of their members.  A school should not be impaired in its ability to serve families by an evaluation system negotiated to protect the jobs of poor performers.
    Until Government Code 3543.2 is properly scaled back to and the statutory requirement to negotiate the evaluation system is removed, the hands of school boards are tied.  At the end of the day, unions are not organized to improve education; they exist to produce private benefits for their members.  Elected school boards should not have to negotiate with unions as many issues as now find their way into the contract; the system of employee evaluation is one of those that should be left to the elected officials with input, but not veto power, by teachers.
     

     

     

  2. Chris Stampolis 10 years ago10 years ago

    The Education Code clearly places evaluation responsibilities on elected school boards: 44660.  It is the intent of the Legislature that governing boards establish a uniform system of evaluation and assessment of the performance of all certificated personnel within each school district of the state, including schools conducted or maintained by county superintendents of education. The system shall involve the development and adoption by each school district of objective evaluation and assessment guidelines which may, at the … Read More

    The Education Code clearly places evaluation responsibilities on elected school boards:

    44660.  It is the intent of the Legislature that governing boards establish a uniform system of evaluation and assessment of the performance of all certificated personnel within each school district of the state, including schools conducted or maintained by county superintendents of education. The system shall involve the development and adoption by each school district of objective evaluation and assessment guidelines which may, at the discretion of the governing board, be uniform throughout the district or, for compelling reasons, be individually developed for territories or schools within the district, provided that all certificated personnel of the district shall be subject to a system of evaluation and assessment adopted pursuant to this article.

    Further, using “shall establish” and “shall evaluate” language, the Legislature expects school boards to be involved with the details of educator evaluation:

    44662.  (a) The governing board of each school district shall establish standards of expected pupil achievement at each grade level in each area of study.
       (b) The governing board of each school district shall evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to:
       (1) The progress of pupils toward the standards established pursuant to subdivision (a) and, if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced assessments.
       (2) The instructional techniques and strategies used by the employee.
       (3) The employee’s adherence to curricular objectives.
       (4) The establishment and maintenance of a suitable learning environment, within the scope of the employee’s responsibilities.

    So, why the disconnects?  If the State Legislature expects elected governing board members to be involved with this work, school boards should prioritize the efforts.  The statute does not say “may.”  It does not say “find someone else to be responsive and kick the duties there.”  The statute says the elected school board “shall establish standards” and “shall evaluate and assess.”

    Establishing standards and implementing a quality evaluation process are not simple tasks, but they should take priority over other school board member efforts.

    – Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, West Valley-Mission Community College District
    Member, State Board of the California Community College Trustees (CCCT)
    Dad of two public school elementary students

  3. Mike McMahon 10 years ago10 years ago

    National Education Association, asked an independent panel of highly accomplished teachers to create a bold, new vision for their profession and then recommend what the NEA should do to make that vision a reality. Here is a review of the report released yesterday.
     
    http://www.quickanded.com/2011/12/the-neas-new-professionalism.html

  4. Maya Bendotoff 10 years ago10 years ago

    I appreciate (and agree with) your thoughts here, and am very interested in where this heads . . . Do you have a list serve that you send updates to? If so, can you add me? We've been looking at and dealing with these very issues.  . . . Thanks! Maya Bendotoff, Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers ccft@ccftcabrillo.org Read More

    I appreciate (and agree with) your thoughts here, and am very interested in where this heads . . .
    Do you have a list serve that you send updates to? If so, can you add me?
    We’ve been looking at and dealing with these very issues.  . . .
    Thanks!
    Maya Bendotoff, Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers
    ccft@ccftcabrillo.org