By Lillie Marshall
Like other states across the country, mine (Massachusetts) is in the midst of piloting a new teacher evaluation system. I'm a teacher, so this matters deeply to me. But it also matters to anyone with any stake in education, as the impact of how we measure teacher effectiveness will be immense.
Now, how are these evaluations going so far? Last month, Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows sent a survey to teachers in Massachusetts's Level 4 Turnaround Schools, who are currently piloting the new system. While the purpose of pilots is, of course, to iron out the kinks in something before rolling it out more broadly, the data compiled from the 112 responses is still concerning and eye-opening, and it points to some major areas for improvement:
• 41% of teachers rated their evaluator as fair or poor overall
• 35% rated the quality of their evaluator's feedback as fair or poor
• 45% rated their evaluator fair or poor in content knowledge
This needs fixing urgently. Across the country, districts are pouring money and time into the supervision and evaluation process to make it a major component of teacher retention, improvement, and staffing, which means if we're not getting this right, it has the potential to sabotage everything else. It becomes a waste of time and money we don't have to spare.
But in my experience, it is possible to define and implement excellent teacher evaluation. I'm lucky, as a Boston Latin Academy teacher, to have experienced exemplary evaluation.
I urge other schools and districts to embrace the key factors that make BLA's evaluation process so effective:
1. My evaluator has strong content knowledge and credibility, so her feedback is useful, relevant, and actionable. As a teacher at BLA, I am supervised and evaluated by the History and ELA Department Head, Tracy Wagner, rather than by the Headmaster. Tracy was a highly effective English teacher for ten years with a similar student population, so she knows her stuff, and I trust her. The action steps she provides work.
2. My evaluator pops into my classroom at least 10 times a year for 10-20 minutes, unannounced, announced, or invited. These frequent, varied observations provide Tracy with a much more authentic understanding of me as a teacher than just one or two fancy, announced, full-class observations. She's caught me being a phenomenal teacher, and has also seen moments of shame, but ten varied visits provide her with a picture of me that is actually ... me!
3. During her observations, my evaluator looks at student work and talks with students to gauge understanding. By analyzing student progress over ten different visits (rather than just focusing on teacher moves), Tracy is able to give me concrete feedback on what skills my students are getting, and suggestions for which specific skills I should focus on next.
4. The main way my evaluator gives feedback is through short, verbal conversations very soon after each observation. Though Tracy always provides me with two pages of notes with written action steps, the most useful element of her feedback is the casual verbal conversation we have after every observation. Let's be real: a specific, frank, timely conversation provides teachers with far more valuable feedback than a formal observation write-up. Talking allows me to give Tracy the context of the other 99% of my teaching which she doesn't observe, and lets us delve deeper into her observations and next steps.
5. My evaluator aims, above all, to be useful. Tracy explained this to me: "How I see it, my job is to meet each teacher wherever they are in the path to improving their craft, and to walk them further along that journey."
My students and I have reaped the benefits of this differentiation. In a February observation, Tracy noticed that my kids were doing well selecting evidence in their essays, but needed more instruction in analyzing how that evidence proved their theses. Directly after giving me that verbal feedback, Tracy printed out three excellent lessons on analysis and shared them with me, and I implemented them in my class. Come our April observation, I was thrilled to hear Tracy note that the lessons worked, because she saw much stronger analysis in my students' writing. "Now that they've got the foundation set," Tracy said, "you can teach lessons on spicing up word choice." She proceeded to provide lesson resources on how to do that.
With another teacher, Tracy would help in a different way. I've been teaching for eight years, but for a newer teacher, Tracy might offer resources on classroom management. She also helps us collaborate across our 94-teacher school by connecting teachers who are perfectly poised to help each other. How lovely it is, as professionals, to have affirmation that we're growing, and to receive concrete ways to produce further growth.
Some educators fear teacher supervision and evaluation because it's associated with a "gotcha!" mentality, as if the main purpose of evaluating is to point out the bad in teachers and get them fired. When done right, however, evaluation in any career provides not only accountability, but also a welcome boost to the next level of excellence.