Making Evaluations Matter

In the coming weeks I, along with thousands of my colleagues around New York City, will receive my annual teacher evaluation report. After a year of pouring endless hours of hard work, creativity, energy and enthusiasm into moving my students forward, my annual performance evaluation will simply say "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory." So that's that.

Really, this binary evaluation tells me almost nothing about my performance this year. There will be little color, context and commentary to frame the job I've done with my students. There will be little analysis of my teaching style, my lesson plans or my instructional approach. Though it's essential for my own professional development as well as the development of my students, there will be little actionable information for me to use in improving my instruction. Once my evaluation's been given, I'll still be asking -- were my support charts accessible and helpful? Did my students' writing meet rigorous enough standards? Were my guided reading questioned designed to best push my students' thinking?

These questions and many others I have about how effective I was in teaching my students will be up to me to answer; my official evaluation will be nothing more than a rudimentary pass-fail assessment of my efforts and my efficacy with my students. As a teacher who is committed to helping my kids succeed both in and outside of the classroom, I know I need more. And I know my students deserve more.

The current teacher evaluation system for New York City schools -- as well as for many school districts around the country -- is fundamentally flawed. The evaluations we receive today give us almost no analysis of our impact (good or bad) on student learning and development. Nor do they help us develop our skills to become more effective educators and better mentors for our students. In short, the current evaluation system doesn't help us become better educators, it doesn't create better learning for our own students, and it doesn't ensure all students across the city receive consistently high-quality instruction.

That's why last year I joined Educators 4 Excellence (E4E), a group of teachers contributing their voices to the policy decisions made at the 10,000-foot level -- a level that all too often forgets to include actual teachers and students. Over the past five months, I've been working with more than a dozen other current and former New York City teachers as part of E4E's policy team to come up with a reasonable and fair set of recommendations for how teachers should be evaluated. As a group, we aimed to create a meaningful system that would not only support us as teachers, but truly help our students achieve at much higher levels.

To develop our recommendations, we researched pilot programs, successful district models and state education laws around the country. We looked closely at different approaches and procedures and debated which policies would work within the context of our own classrooms here in New York City.

We believe our proposed evaluation system is fair to teachers and students alike. First and foremost, it acknowledges that students deserve classroom teachers who are mindful of their own strengths and weaknesses so that they can continually improve their instruction. And it recognizes that to inform that knowledge, teachers need objective feedback about how their performance in the classroom enhances student learning.

In our recommendations, we call for a balanced combination of multiple classroom observations (from both administrator and independent observers) and student achievement data. In addition, we recommend that student surveys and the contributions teachers make to their school communities count towards the final rating. Finally, we stress the importance of using district-wide rubrics in teacher evaluations to establish a model for effective teaching that extends to all teachers and students in the city.

The teacher's union and the policy-makers at the DOE will likely have to make compromises as they negotiate a new evaluation system. As the conversation moves forward, I hope it continues to include a voice from the front lines -- teachers and students who will work by whatever is put in place.

No matter what percentages or particularities emerge in the new system, one thing is imperative: student learning must be at its heart. By regularly observing teacher behaviors and using those observations to provide clear and actionable feedback, we can increase teacher effectiveness and drive our students to make greater academic gains than ever before. Only then can we ensure that our students are receiving the highest-quality education possible.

Grace Snodgrass is a teacher at PS 3 in the Bronx, NY and serves on the Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) Teacher Evaluation Policy Team. Representing more than 2,500 educators, E4E is an organization of current and former education professionals who seek to provide an independent voice in the education policy debate.

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