Last month’s legislative drama involving Assembly Bill 5 provided a snapshot of the dysfunctional politics of education policy, with distrust and division inflaming what should be worked out in a calm and straightforward manner.
All stakeholders would welcome teacher evaluation improvements, but disagreements about the nature of the reform unfortunately dominated discussion, pushing aside areas of likely consensus. If the debate could be grounded in evidence, research on best practices, and areas of agreement, California could pass a bill that would actually be useful to educators and address the accountability concerns of the broader community.
First, let’s all take a deep breath. The urgency of teacher evaluation reform has been overstated; high-achieving students in California are not differentiated so much by teacher evaluations, but rather by the powerful influences of family wealth and educational attainment, and by access to schools with more money, better staffing levels, more robust offerings, and greater stability. Even some of the strongest critics of teachers and unions concede that teachers account for a small portion of the overall factors that shape students’ lives and opportunities to learn. Teacher evaluation reform by itself is not going to bring dramatic improvements to student learning, especially if our state is unable or unwilling to invest in other supports for education and children’s well-being. California is last among the 50 states when it comes to providing administrative support, counselors, nurses, and librarians, all of whom make a significant difference in schools.
At the same time, teacher evaluation is ripe for improvement. In 2010, Accomplished California Teachers published a policy report in which we detailed our desire for a robust teacher evaluation system, one that would incorporate student learning and provide ongoing feedback to support the continuous improvement of every teacher. I’ve worked on this issue for several years now, and discussed it with teacher leaders up and down the state, and I’ve yet to meet a teacher who resists the idea of using student work in an evaluation process – if it’s done in the right way, for the right reasons. In fact, the teachers who contributed to our report were thirsting for more feedback – ongoing high-quality evaluation processes focused on improving their practice.
AB 5 did contain provisions that would improve evaluations, but it did not satisfy some education reformers who want standardized test data to be integral to evaluation. Those individuals or groups who engage in particularly strident advocacy for testing, as well as verbal attacks on those of us who disagree, will end up damaging their own cause in two ways. First, by assuming the worst intentions of teachers and teachers unions, they spread distrust. Second, by promoting the use of students’ standardized test scores in teacher evaluation, they risk creating a system worse than the one we already have. Teachers are looking for partners who acknowledge and want to address all of the challenges in schools and in our students’ lives, and who refrain from smear tactics when presented with abundant evidence that testing data will cloud rather than clarify evaluations.
We can advance the cause of quality teaching, provide for accountability, and build a solid consensus around improving teacher evaluation. It won’t be easy for some people to imagine this, but the way forward is simple and clear: Stop arguing about standardized testing, and focus on the substantial areas where we can agree about what matters.
Using California’s existing standardized tests in evaluations is a polarizing approach with significant practical limitations. Teachers and evaluators should instead agree upon the use of assessments selected from the regular work in the classroom, an approach that will work for every teacher rather than the minority who teach tested subjects and grade levels. Our current state tests are about to be phased out anyway, and it would be imprudent to stake major policy decisions to assessments still in development. Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, estimates that we would need at least a few years’ worth of data from Common Core assessment before we could start interpreting the results. Common Core standards also suggest a whole-school approach to skills development, which will likely help students, but significantly complicate attempts to link scores to individual teachers.
Provide the supports to improve
Stronger evaluations would offer me the direct involvement of skilled administrators and peers, with feedback from students and parents. Give me the time and resources to do as teachers in other leading nations do, spending several hours each week reviewing student work, lesson design, classroom observations and assessment results in a collaborative effort to improve outcomes. Evaluate holistically using all of these types of information, and provide the support necessary to make improvements. If we have administrators who can’t make informed judgments about teachers using that approach, then the problem is elsewhere in the system, larger than we feared, and not fixed by using test scores.
Let’s strive to improve the daily practices of teaching and learning, in a professional atmosphere, relying on solid research, high standards, and consensus building grounded in mutual responsibility. James Popham, professor emeritus at UCLA and an expert in all matters of assessment, wrote of teacher evaluation, “As someone who’s been dipping in and out of the teacher evaluation research literature for more than 50 years, I’ve come to a conclusion about the only truly defensible way to evaluate a teacher’s skill. Because of the inherent particularism enveloping a teacher’s endeavors, I believe the evaluation of teaching must fundamentally rest on the professional judgment of well-trained colleagues.”
Some teachers agree that fellow teachers would provide the best evaluation, and some prefer administrators. The ACT report on evaluation suggests that state policy ought to provide guidance that supports districts and schools developing “well-trained colleagues” of all types, and let them work out the details locally. One size does not fit all: a couple of smaller California districts have shown convincingly that peer evaluation can surpass traditional models by providing more frequent evaluations, better quality evaluations, a high degree of professionalism, and superior labor-management relations.
In the aftermath of AB 5 and the divisive political battles waged around it, California’s best path to successful evaluation reform is to build trust among stakeholders by focusing on evaluation practices with the strongest consensus, strongest research base, and strongest track record of success in schools nationally and internationally.
David B. Cohen is associate director of Accomplished California Teachers, and a National Board Certified Teacher currently teaching English part-time at Palo Alto High School. He writes an education blog at InterACT.