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To Cut or To Keep? Teacher Evaluation in an Age of Blame

In response to the backlash that blames teachers for a significant part in the failure of public schools in this country, teacher training and evaluation are revisited time and again in hope of finding the magic bullet that reforms education and gets positive results in the classroom. Teachers have become an easy target when assigning blame even though it is naïve to think that the problem can be identifies and isolated so easily.
Much discussion has centered on student performance based evaluations that can result in teacher termination if their scores are consistently low. Studies indicate however that there are numerous factors that influence student performance that are beyond the control of the teacher and that this system has many inherent flaws and negative consequences.
Thirty-six states require student achievement to be a “significant” factor; 12 have a single statewide system; about half provide an optional model or guidelines for district-level tailoring; and the remaining states have a “presumptive model”. Among these systems, there is great variety in how numerous issues are handled, including observations, student/parent/peer surveys, how results influence tenure and/or compensation decisions, and so on.
So what does actually work? Making the teacher the scapegoat, attacking tenure, tying retention and pay to student performance, and other cruel and misguided attempts at reform have only exacerbated the problem.
The Spring 2014 issue of AFT’s professional journal, American Educator, features an impressive array of articles on teacher evaluation, including a thoughtful piece by Linda Darling-Hammond that belongs on your compulsory reading list.
The core of Darling-Hammond’s analysis entitled “One Piece of the Whole: Teacher Evaluation as Part of a Comprehensive System for Teaching and Learning” is in these four paragraphs:
“Of all the lessons for teacher evaluation in the current era, perhaps this one is the most important: that we not adopt an individualistic, competitive approach to ranking and sorting teachers that undermines the growth of learning communities. Research shows that student gains are most pronounced where teachers have greater longevity and work as a team….At the end of the day, collaborative learning among teachers will do more to support student achievement than dozens of the most elaborate ranking schemes ever could.
“Some proponents of teacher evaluation reforms have conjectured that if districts would eliminate the bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers each year, as measured by value-added student test scores, U.S. student achievement would increase by a substantial amount—enough to catch up to high-achieving countries like Finland. However, there is no real-world evidence to support this idea and quite a bit to dispute it.
“In fact, high-achieving Finland does not do what these advocates propose. Rather than focusing on firing teachers, it has one of the strongest initial teacher education systems in the world, and leaders credit that system with having produced nationwide improvements in student learning. There is relatively little emphasis in Finland on formal on-the-job evaluation, and much more emphasis on collaboration among professionals to promote student learning. In truth, we cannot fire our way to Finland. If we want to reach the high and equitable outcomes it has achieved in recent years, we will have to teach our way to stronger student learning by supporting teachers' collective learning.
“Despite the current focus on in-service evaluation, a highly skilled teaching force results from developing well-prepared teachers from recruitment through preparation via ongoing professional development. Support for teacher learning and evaluation needs to be part of an integrated whole that promotes effectiveness during every stage of a teacher's career. Such a system must ensure that teacher evaluation is connected to—not isolated from—preparation and induction programs, daily professional practice, and a productive instructional context.”
Ask any teacher and if they are candid, they will share the failures and abject horrors of their first year in the classroom. Furthermore, they do not magically transform into amazing educators the second year or even the third. It requires a persistence and willingness to learn that enables them to slowly build their skill sets and begin to truly shine. In our current persecuting, purging culture of compliance, teachers are oftentimes not offered the support or collaborative opportunities with peers and mentoring from colleagues to truly evolve and become the top notch super teachers in high demand.
University of Tennessee researchers W. L. Sanders and J. C. Rivers found that within grade levels, the most dominant factor affecting students' achievement was the effect of the teacher, and that this effect increased over time. Likewise, Darling-Hammond (2000) reported that inexperienced teachers, i.e., those with less than three years of experience, were typically less effective than more senior teachers, though these effects tended to level off after five years.
Kati Haycock (2002) of The Education Trust drew from the 1998 Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) High School Restructuring when she noted that within one academic year in BPS’s high schools, the top third of teachers judged to be effective produced as much as six times the learning growth as the bottom third of teachers. Murnane, Singer, and Willett (1989) noted that “research suggests that teachers make marked gains in effectiveness during their first years in the classroom. Consequently, reducing the frequency with which children are taught by a successive stream of novice teachers may be one step toward improving educational quality” (p. 343). Steff, Wolfe, Pasch, and Enz (2000) reviewed the literature on the life cycle of a teacher and the time it takes for a new teacher to become proficient. They concluded:
"The apprentice phase begins for most teachers when they receive responsibility for planning and delivering instruction on their own. This phase continues until integration and synthesis of knowledge, pedagogy, and confidence merges, marking the beginning of the professional period. Typically, the apprentice phase includes the induction period and extends into the second or third year of teaching" (p.6).
The movement to overhaul teacher evaluation is well underway. Despite considerable progress, many reforms have sputtered or run into controversy, often because policymakers have not fully considered teachers' concerns and ideas. If states and districts want effective and sustainable teacher evaluation systems, teachers must be at the table as central participants in policy conversations. Everyone at the Table is a popular book that provides a research-based methodology, clear strategies and practical materials for engaging teachers in productive, solutions-oriented dialogue about teacher evaluation and teacher effectiveness. And there are many others to support action that moves us in the right direction.
If teacher longevity is a cornerstones of successful schools with successful students, then reform efforts should reflect these truths. A teacher workforce that is well trained, engaged in continuing professional development, and committed to staying in the state, district and school will result in all students receiving appropriate instruction and increasing their achievement. Administrators assuming leadership of a retention effort as part of a long-range plan for developing the district’s teaching force is an important first step. The next step is to plan for teacher collaboration within their grade level and department so they can team with other more seasoned teachers and build their “teacher toolbox.”
Successful induction programs include mentoring or coaching that is individualized to the needs of the teacher, the classroom and the subject/level assignment. They provide continuing assistance and ongoing guidance by an expert in the field, support development of knowledge and skills, provide opportunities for reflection, acculturate the new teacher into the profession and the school, provide opportunities for new teachers to observe and analyze good teaching, and include assessment of the program’s value to new teachers and its impact on student learning (Odell, 1989, in Fidelar & Haselkorn, 1999).
In Learning the Ropes: Urban Teacher Induction Programs and Practices in the United States, Fidelar and Haselkorn (1999) it concluded that the median attrition rate for new teachers in induction programs across the 10 urban districts they studied was seven percent which compared favorably with national estimates showing nine percent attrition during a teacher’s first year and twenty-three percent within the first three years (p.115)
In her book, Mentoring Programs for New Teachers: Models of Induction and Support, Susan Villani (2002) provides detailed descriptions of 17 mentor induction programs. In addition to providing information about establishing, implementing and evaluating these initiatives, program directors provided substantial evidence that the programs enhanced retention.
There are many things that can be done to recruit, retain, and reform educators so they can evolve into master teachers. Evaluations should not have a punitive or “gotcha” tone but rather act as a tool to assess strengths and weakness followed by opportunities to address the areas needing improvement. Frequent walk-throughs by admin can provide valuable feedback, and activities such as “Learning Walks” can be wonderful opportunities for teachers to receive input from their fellow colleagues that enables them to close any holes or gaps in their instruction. Communication must be open, honest, respectful, and supportive between all parties. With any luck, everyone will get behind the right ideas and see them through to fruition so the future is secure and schools are back on track.

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