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 Susan Volbrecht, a Chicago elementary school teacher.
Every year, in the late summer and early fall, I prepare for the return of my students with excitement. But every year, many of my finest colleagues are moving into prestigious positions at the district level or with education non-profits. Last year I asked one such teacher what made her feel that she must leave the classroom.
"After seven years," she replied, "it just seems like ambitious people move on."
Although it's difficult for me to envision life without my class, I see her point. Excellent teachers have few career ladders or opportunities for advancement as practitioners. At the elementary level (kindergarten through 8th grade in Chicago Public Schools, where I taught until last year), there are no department chairs, no dual roles, and no pay increases for effective teaching. Many teachers take part-time or seasonal work with teacher preparation programs or providing workshops, but even these opportunities are limited. The arrival of new teacher evaluation systems nationwide, however, is an opportunity to recognize these teachers, create career ladders without taking teachers out of the classroom, and ensure greater reliability of classroom observations--all at once.
As written, many evaluation systems place a large percentage of teachers' overall ratings on observations. Research like the Measures of Effective Teaching Project has found that these scores will be most useful in developing teachers if they are conducted by a variety of observers. These observers can and should include current teachers. After all, if a principal is not certified in a teacher's subject area or grade level, the quality of feedback they can provide may be limited. Colleagues who have distinguished themselves in those areas will be a useful source of "next steps" and ideas, and adding more than one observer's perspective to a teacher's evaluation will provide a more accurate rating.
To build trust in these new roles, observers would need to be selected through a rigorous process. Even in the most healthy school environments, there are those who will be apprehensive about letting a colleague participate in their evaluation. Candidates for dual roles must have already distinguished themselves on previous observations, and will have to adhere to a rubric for ratings based on evidence from the observations. In addition, these teachers must also participate in peer-observation for their own evaluations to create a reciprocal, collaborative relationship with peers. Both observer and those being observed should be accountable for next steps to improve practice. Lastly, these measures should take place in conjunction with administrator observations for the best possible consistency.
By taking advantage of this opportunity and establishing such roles, districts could increase their teacher retention rates. Opportunities for advancement are a major motivator for professionals, and dual-roles would allow students continued access to the most effective and experienced teachers. According to TNTP, only 26 percent of effective teachers were told about a "pathway for teacher leadership" by a member of their administration. Their research suggests feedback and development (which can be provided by current teachers), recognition, and added responsibility and advancement as low-cost solutions to the teacher retention crisis. Peer observation would address all of these needs and simultaneously ensure the proper implementation of new evaluation systems.
Is it fool-proof? No. Nothing is. I have no doubt that in some situations, teachers may not fulfill all responsibilities of these roles--and in other cases, teachers will be over-burdened with too many responsibilities and too little support. But for most ambitious teachers desiring advancement, hybrid roles like these may be the answer to both making the most out of evaluation and keeping the best teachers in the classroom where they belong.
By thinking creatively about how to harness all the expertise in our classroom, we can ensure that new evaluation systems do not miss out on meeting their potential as teachers focus on implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the new assessments associated with them. We need to recognize and elevate teachers through all the pathways available to us. Most of all, we need to guarantee outstanding educators for our students, instead of removing them from the front lines.
Susan Volbrecht currently teaches in the UNO Charter School network. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.