Better Than "Satisfactory"

Better Than "Satisfactory"
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Making the Grade is a series of blog posts written by teachers that charts the progress of evaluation roll-out in each of their school districts. The teachers will address what's working well and what remains a challenge, and will offer recommendations for getting the most out of new evaluation systems nationwide.

Today's blog post is by Jennifer DiSarcina, a Boston Public Schools teacher.

Teaching in urban schools in both the D.C. Metro area and now Boston for 13 years, I have been conflicted for years about evaluations.

I feel empowered, proud, and energized by how my evaluators speak about what they see from my students, specifically through my teaching and instructional choices.

I feel honored when they commend my professionalism and the multiple ways I extend myself to colleagues and families.

Then I am given the written evaluation to sign...and there is that word: Satisfactory. Such a distasteful, broad, and uninspiring word for an inordinate amount of effort on behalf of my classroom and students. But in our old evaluation system, there were only two choices: satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Satisfactory was the best you could do.

This is the feedback that will live in my human resources file for anyone in the district to see, people who may never see me teach: my professional reputation. I am satisfactory, and my labors are tantamount to a series of six to ten checkmarks on the left column on a page.

Hopefully, this is going to change. The state of Massachusetts has reconfigured our teacher and principal evaluation systems to include multiple measures of assessment. For the first time, teachers can be rated as exemplary, proficient, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory.

It's All in the Implementation

The new system offers great opportunities for teachers and administrators--if it's implemented well. All of the members of a school's instructional community are given the opportunity to improve their craft and set goals in a manner that honors where they are and sets the expectation that we all must strive for improvement. Teachers, administrators, and students together must raise the bar of personal achievement.

One of the strengths of Boston's new evaluation system is that teachers are expected to participate in their own goal setting for both professionalism and student achievement, after completing a self-evaluation based on four standards (curriculum, planning, and assessment; teaching all students; family & community engagement; and professional culture). Teachers identify where they are currently performing within those standards along a comprehensive rubric of three to six indicators for each domain, and create individualized goals for improvement. Those goals are reviewed in tandem with their evaluator(s)/administrators, and potentially with teaching teams. Along with each observation, both the evaluator and teacher are now asked to upload artifacts and evidence that supports growth towards the approved goals. The cycle of self-assessment and goal setting is ongoing throughout a teacher's career. This allows all educators along a continuum of experience and proficiency to continue to grow to greatness.

But "implementing" such a system well, in a large urban district like Boston with a varied portfolio of schools (traditional, turnaround, pilot, "Innovation," and in-district charter) can be a challenge. My own school, the Eliot K-8 Innovation School, is exceptionally data-driven, working in teacher teams in six to eight week cycles to improve targeted instruction and student achievement. We had already been meeting with the principal and vice principal for three years to set our own professional goals, with mid- and end-of-year check-ins.

Moving to this online evaluation system, however, we were afforded three hours of professional development with a district trainer. This trainer continues to provide support to our administrators with the uploading of evaluations, artifacts, and observations to the online system. Overall, while I feel prepared to transition to the new system, I also recognize that I am one of many who is merely "getting it done" and not maximizing the potential of the system. I have "satisfactorily" made my way through the process. The word I despise, yet it is all the time I can afford to divert from the other critical areas of need within my classroom.

We could do better than this, and indeed, the district is making an effort to provide additional supports to make the transition to the new system go more smoothly. Ideally, principals or their evaluator designees (other people qualified to evaluate teachers based on content expertise) would be given more time and support to study the changes to the system and to map out the amount of time needed for training both themselves and their staff to understand and implement such a significant shift.

Finding the Time to Get It Right

The conundrum faced by every school in this transition is where to balance the focus of a limited number of whole staff meeting hours: the shift to the new MA Frameworks based on the Common Core, the new evaluation system, improving instruction to close the achievement gap, or addressing school culture, routines, and expectations. All are equally important to the success of the academic year for staff and students.

As school leaders make tough choices about how to divvy up the limited professional development time with their staff, the Boston Teachers Union has been a supportive partner with Boston Public Schools by collaborating with BPS to promote and provide supplementary trainings for teachers in all five components of the evaluation cycle. Multiple training sessions were offered throughout the fall and into the winter, and are following the timeline of an actual evaluation cycle. Peer Assistants have also provided additional support to Boston teachers in the roll-out of the new evaluation process: these are dedicated BPS teachers/BTU members who can meet one-on-one with teachers who are assigned to a 30 or 60-day improvement plan, to ensure they have the support and resources they need to improve.

Has it been a perfect process in Boston? Hardly. Concerns abound about the quality and training attendance rates of evaluators, as well as the varied amount of time each school is willing or able to dedicate to making this change. The potential for this new evaluation system to move struggling teachers to proficiency, and proficient teachers to exemplary is all there within the model...the key is the implementation and time available to be reflective and make change in the midst of a major instructional standards shift as well. Teachers who are unable to attend after-school district-wide trainings or whose schools are not strong in implementing change will lose out on this opportunity. It is my hope that as we move into the second year of full-district evaluation implementation, the planned online trainings, posted exemplars of goals and artifacts, and videos of exemplary teaching in multiple grades, contents, and specialties will all help make the most of the new evaluation system. It would also be useful for all teachers to have the opportunity to contact Peer Assistants with questions in an ongoing format.

As the rollout of more comprehensive and co-constructed evaluation systems occurs nationwide, support should be given to both teachers and their evaluators to ensure the process is equitable and of significant quality to improve instruction across classrooms, schools, and districts. One of the best features of these new evaluation plans is the acknowledgement that teachers, like students, are at different places along the performance continuum and that we are never "finished" improving our craft. Reflection at the end of the year should occur between individuals, teaching teams, school staff, and the district to reflect the need for differentiated and targeted professional development and instruction to continue the strengthening of instruction.

"Satisfactory" doesn't cut it for me anymore--and if we truly desire an improved education for students at all levels in all schools, we must dedicate the time and resources to ensuring that our evaluations are much better than satisfactory, too.

Jennifer DiSarcina teaches at the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston Public Schools. She is an alumna of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship.

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