By Caitlin Hollister and Shakera Walker
Any teacher will tell you that teaching requires a balance of creative problem-solving and dogged determination. To be effective, we must work continually to improve our craft, both in the early years and throughout our careers. And we need support to do that. As a new teacher, one of us struggled with two boys whose emotional troubles were interfering with their academic progress. A more experienced colleague regularly observed the class and provided expert advice on how to push the boys to succeed while giving them the gentle support that made school a happier place for them. This thoughtful peer-to-peer advice had a huge impact; as a result, both boys finished the year proud to have mastered third grade. In the years since, like many teachers, neither of us has been evaluated much at all.
The experience of having little to no feedback is a common one for teachers. Last year in Massachusetts, when state policymakers collected educator feedback, only 13 percent of teachers said their last evaluation was very useful, and a full third said it was not useful at all. Research shows that the quality of the classroom teacher is the most important in-school factor in student success. With only 63 percent of Boston students graduating from high school on time, we must do better.
But how? Across the country, the question of how best to evaluate teachers -- and how to use evaluations effectively -- continues to cause stirring debates among teachers and policymakers. In December, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, released a report calling for a teacher evaluation system that includes self-assessment, peer review, and evidence of student learning. In fact, both national teachers unions -- the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers -- now agree that robust, multi-faceted teacher evaluation systems, including some evidence of student learning, are necessary to provide teachers with the tools we need to best do our jobs. In the last two years, the number of states requiring annual evaluations of teachers has grown from 15 to 24, plus the District of Columbia, with 23 states requiring the use of objective student data in those evaluations.
Here in Massachusetts, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed a new plan for teacher evaluation last spring. This plan is unique among other states' in that the process begins with a self-evaluation, a component that we as teachers believe is hugely important. Furthermore, the plan doesn't mandate a specific percentage on the student data component, allowing districts to be more flexible and creative in determining which measures are most appropriate for different subjects and grade levels.
It's our hope that as this new plan rolls out over the next three years, it will change evaluations from primarily pro forma tasks to deep examinations of data and practice. As two experienced educators who hold ourselves to the highest standards (Ms. Hollister was named a Boston Public Schools Educator of the Year; Ms. Walker was selected for the U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellowship), we believe that what matters most now is how districts implement the new system of evaluation, and how they use the information gathered. If done right, this plan could open the door to the kind of valuable teacher evaluation that could help to provide all students with the outstanding educators they deserve, and offer a model for other teacher evaluation systems nationwide. With these outcomes in mind, we have three recommendations that will make this plan, and others like it across the country, successful:
Help the good become great: As districts implement this new system, we encourage leaders to ensure that the emphasis is placed not on the small percentage of teachers who are underperforming, but on the large majority who are good ... and who can become outstanding with the right support.
Revamp professional development: Tens of millions of dollars are spent on professional development in Massachusetts and other states each year. Yet the current model of workshop-style professional development hasn't shown dramatic results. Redesigning this time would help schools implement meaningful evaluations and give teachers the time to reflect and de-brief observations with evaluators and fellow teachers.
Develop peer evaluators: Principals can't do this job alone; they simply have too many responsibilities to provide the kind of intensive coaching that will be necessary to support teachers effectively. And as we learned early in our teaching careers, sometimes the most useful feedback comes from more experienced colleagues. Peer Assistance and Review programs -- in which experienced educators are trained to evaluate and coach fellow teachers through collaborations between unions and districts -- have been successful in cities across the country. We urge districts to pilot such programs in order to give more extensive support to teachers who need it and make the system doable for already-busy principals.
We understand that there is considerable concern around how standardized test scores will be used in teacher evaluations, and how those test scores will impact layoff procedures. Many teachers question a standardized test's ability to capture their teaching practice accurately and fully, and how outside factors that impact student learning will be quantified. But it isn't enough to say that teaching is an art that cannot be measured. Teachers have to come to the table -- and policymakers have to listen -- in an effort to develop the best possible solutions to the teacher evaluation challenge.
As two of the teachers who served on the Massachusetts task force that helped design the new evaluation system, we were proud that teacher voices were included in every step in this process. We know that making a change this significant will be hard, and it won't be perfect right away. But if districts engage teachers in the process, they will find teachers ready and willing to develop a system that could transform teaching nationwide. Stronger evaluation systems can help teachers -- and consequently our students -- thrive. Nothing could be more important.
Caitlin Hollister and Shakera Walker are former Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows. Ms. Hollister teaches third grade in the Boston Public Schools. Ms. Walker is a Boston Public Schools teacher currently serving as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow in the U.S. Department of Education. The views in this piece are her own, and are not meant to represent any position of the U.S. Department of Education.