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Is Evaluation the Answer?

August 12, 2015

 

We’re nearing the end of summer break. Some schools already have teachers back and a few even have kids starting next week. A summer’s worth of intense planning and preparation are about to be forced into operation – ready or not!

 

At the top of many principals’ lists for revisions and readjustments headed into the new school year is teacher evaluation systems and structures. It’s in this light that I offer a little story and, of course, some lessons I learned from it.

 

Below Expectations

 

A few years ago, I sat in a room at the end of the school year with a teacher I was working with. I was about to have a conversation that I was not looking forward to. I needed to deliver the bad news that his end-of-year evaluation put him at Below Expectations. His observations were middling all year long, he had sizeable amount of misses on professional expectations, and his students did not achieve the established (and very attainable) goals that we had established at the year’s outset.

 

Despite what seemed so clear in my eyes as his coach, I knew that this substandard rating would hit him like a ton of bricks. That’s what made me trepidatious – like somehow I had pulled the wool over his eyes all year long. As feared, he was crushed by the evaluation. He responded very respectfully, but I could tell that, inside, it felt like I was dismantling his teacher spirit – taking little pieces of his conception of himself as an instructor, stomping on them, and leaving him to clean up the mess.

 

What made me even more anxious after he left our meeting with tears in his eyes was the knowledge that this poor evaluation wasn’t going to make him a better teacher. Sure, it might make him think a little harder and avoid a few of those misses on professional expectations, but telling him he was Below Expectations wouldn’t magically make him a teacher who was Meeting or Above Expectations. It would just let him know that, in the eyes of the administration, he was a teacher that was Below Expectations.

 

I reflected a lot on where this went wrong. Why did he not know that he was Below Expectations all year? The evaluation system was known from the beginning of the year. I was observing him for 30-45 minutes every other week and we’d meet to discuss my observations afterwards. We had a strong relationship – he trusted me and I trusted him. I didn’t pull punches when I thought things were bad, and changes were typically implemented the next time I observed. But, on the whole, he was never any better as a teacher. He was just as bad, but in different ways. Where did we go wrong?

 

As an instructional leadership team, we had banked on our clear evaluation system to manage our teachers for us, but we made several missteps along the way. Primarily, we failed to think of the multiple, separate pieces of our work as instructional leaders as a focused and cohesive system of teacher development. We had observations and coaching. We had professional expectations. We had student achievement results. We had a transparent evaluation system. But all of them operated in their own silos.

 

More importantly though, none of it was leading up to anything. There was nothing coherent binding all of these systems together. Each component existed because it was supposed to exist. Each was destined to stay a silo. And this was our Achilles’ heel.

 

A Cohesive System

 

This teary-eyed meeting (and the others that I knew happened between other coaches and their teachers) showed the discrepancies between our actions, perspectives, and evaluations as instructional leaders and the expectations and self-perceptions our teachers had of their effectiveness. It was a call to action and an all-too-obvious awakening.

 

You cannot have an evaluation system that is divorced from all other teacher development efforts and expect any component to be successful in improving instruction and learning. The evaluation system must be viewed as a component too, rather than as the glue that holds all of the pieces together or, worse yet, the target towards which all efforts aim. Evaluation is a tool in the same way that coaching or full-staff professional development are tools. Authentic, lasting teacher development that results in improved student learning happens when all of these tools work together in service of reaching an established and shared vision of excellent instruction. Viewed as such, evaluation becomes one means in a cohesive system to reach an end, but not the only means and definitely not an end onto itself.

 

The Sides of the Coin

 

Many schools and school systems have disjointed systems of teacher development, just like the one that I was a part of that resulted in the previously described evaluation. Components of teacher development systems are often developed and implemented piecemeal (with any number of leadership and contextual changes added in as well), so they continue to function in a piecemeal fashion.

 

The two most disjointed and misaligned teacher development efforts are typically coaching and evaluation. Oddly, these are the two most related – two sides of the same coin.

 

At their core, both coaching and evaluation are designed for the same common purpose: to generate data and feedback on teacher skill relative to a known standard. However, coaching and evaluation need to diverge in important ways from this central function in order to converge back at the larger purpose of developing teachers.

 

Evaluation, happening less frequently, should function as:

  • A summative assessment of teacher skill (which may or may not mean “higher stakes” – but I’m not about head down that rabbit hole in this post…)

  • More comprehensive, providing data and feedback on a broader range of skills, but on a more surface level

  • Outcomes-oriented, focused on the “final product” achieved more so than on the process of arriving there

  • Priority establishing, honing in on broader categories and areas for improvement, but lacking enough depth to pinpoint specific changes and adjustments

  • Monitoring at the macro-level

Comparatively, and in relation to evaluation, coaching must function as:

  • A series of formative assessments and constant micro-evaluations (which may or may not mean “low-to-no stakes”)

  • Targeted and narrowly focused on a subset of skills, generating data on fewer skills in greater detail

  • Technique and input-oriented (though grounded in “micro-outcomes”), focused on how the “final product” is achieved

  • Action establishing, pinpointing specific and immediately actionable adjustments

  • Monitoring at the micro-level (to ensure transfer of improvements to the macro-level)

 

Though the outcome of both coaching and evaluation is data and feedback on teacher skill, they play very different roles in a teacher’s development when they function together in these complimentary ways. Both are important components to develop teachers the same way both quizzes and final exams are important for teachers to monitor the extent of students’ learning.

 

Neither coaching nor evaluation is effective on its own though.

 

Missing Components

 

Evaluation Without Coaching

 

Let’s take the case of a clear evaluation system with an underdeveloped or ineffective coaching system. Imagine the following vignette…

  • You’re sitting down for a mid-year evaluation with your principal. She has just observed a portion of one of your lessons last week for about 30 minutes. You killed it! Your kids were on point and participating actively. You brought in their end-of-class Exit Tickets and showed your principal tangible products of their learning. She agrees, giving you high marks in engagement, critical thinking, classroom management, and instructional planning. Overall, you are Proficient in all categories and have earned a very strong evaluation. You’re on cloud nine and sitting pretty.

  • Your colleague down the hall tells you about the miserable mid-year evaluation he got. You know he’s not a very strong teacher but didn’t know that he was bordering on Unsatisfactory like the principal told him he was. He came out with a laundry list of things to work on: more student-centered lessons, correcting student misbehavior and issuing consequences, more rigorous assessments, checking for student understanding more consistently, better integration of Common Core standards and real-world context for learning. He’s really overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to start. You give him a book that you find helpful and promise to keep asking him about how things are going, but you can’t do much more than that.

  • The end of the year rolls around and your principal comes back into your classroom. It does not go well. Things are just not firing on all cylinders. You know it’s not your best lesson. In fact, in reflection, many of your lessons look more like this one than the one she saw earlier in the year. This time you leave your evaluation meeting with a Developing rating, but with a few areas where your principal has marked you as Proficient. The frustration starts sinking in – if you had only known that you really did have things to be working on, maybe you would have done things differently. You start to resent your principal and her flawed evaluation system.

  • Your friend down the hall is incredibly nervous. You know he’s gotten better – at least based on what he tells you – but he’s worried that it’s not going to come across to the principal. It doesn’t. Unsatisfactory. Nearly identical feedback from earlier in the year. Your resentment is compounded by the feeling of abandonment that both you and your colleague have experienced at the hands of an unsupportive principal.

This is not an unrealistic scenario. It may be playing out for tens of thousands of teachers and principals across the country every year. And the repercussions are vast.

 

In a system centered on evaluation, no matter how good the tool or the evaluator, without coaching to compliment, teacher development seems hopeless. It’s feedback without support. A snapshot that can lead to false positives or false negatives. A system that breeds mistrust and frustration between teachers and administrators.

 

There are a lot of additional factors that contribute to this. Namely, the quality with which the evaluation is conducted and feedback communicated. Poor quality will make a good system crumble, but even top-notch quality can’t save a bad system that is only focused on evaluation without coaching.

 

Coaching Without Evaluation

 

Conversely, let’s look at a strong coaching system with weak evaluation structures. The scenario with my teacher from the start of the post could generally fall in this category, but let’s consider another vignette.

  • You love your coach. She comes in every other week and is so smart. She sees things that you can’t and gleans profound, yet seemingly obvious next steps from them. It almost seems magical!

  • One week you’re working on giving clearer directions. The next you’re talking about the rigor of your lesson plans. A few weeks later, you even analyze some student work together. Her instructional knowledge is so vast! She’s pushing you in so many different areas.

  • During second semester, you feel like you’ve had this same conversation before. It’s still profound. You’ll still take the necessary action steps coming out of the meeting, but you’re getting the sneaking suspicion that you’re not actually getting better at anything specific. Your coach remains positive though. Every time you meet she praises you for implementing your next steps so well. So you trust her and keep doing what she says. She knows after all, right?

This is also not unrealistic. In fact, it might be more common (though perhaps with less consistency than described in the vignette) for teachers across the country. There’s a reading specialist that comes in, a coach from the district, a curriculum coordinator, a person from a culture intervention program, a special education compliance analyst, department chairs, principals, assistant principals.

 

The parade of support staff that comes through a teacher’s classroom may be endless. And they all may be individually wonderful. But collectively it’s a hamster-spinning-its-wheel tangled mess of advice and coaching because it is not leading anywhere specific.

 

Even if there is one dedicated coach, coaching not grounded in evaluation is directionless and haphazard. There’s no way of measuring improvement over time or noting real and tangible development. Maintaining that development becomes more difficult to manage as well and regression to previous ways inevitably happens as soon as priority shifts to whatever pops up next.

 

As separate as teachers want to see their coaches (and as coaches may want to see their teachers), coaching is a series of micro-evaluations. When treated as something separate, coaching becomes yet another feel-good effort that leads nowhere in particular.

 

The Tie That Binds

 

For both to be effective, coaching and evaluation must be grounded in something larger that establishes what they mean in the grander sense. Any instructional development efforts mean nothing without a shared vision of excellent instruction and mutual understanding of what results from moving ever closer to that vision. Both tools are then in service of an end goal that isn’t the other tool and isn’t self-serving, bureaucratic, or easily ignored. Development efforts can be focused on what it means for students when they have great teachers in front of them all day, every day, in every classroom.

 

Instructional leaders must be able to very clearly articulate what excellent teaching looks like and invest teachers in that vision because of the shared belief in what it means for student success. Only once that vision is established and shared (and teachers can articulate what excellent teaching looks like with as much conviction and gusto as instructional leaders) can evaluation and coaching systems come together in service of that vision and become the powerful tools for teacher development that they can and should be.

 

We evaluate and coach teachers so that they are better teachers for students, not so their evaluation scores go up. Improved evaluation scores are products of these efforts rather than a purpose for them.

 

A Different Ending

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t work with that same teacher with the Below Expectations evaluation again the following school year. I can only speculate what might have happened if I had been able to coach him under better systemic circumstances. All I do know is that we, as instructional leaders, failed him that school year.

 

The following year, I had a similar teacher and a much more cohesive system of teacher development to operate within. Frustration and mistrust characterized his end-of-year evaluation the year prior with his former coach, but a smile crossed his face when he saw that his self-completed evaluation perfectly matched the one I completed for him.

 

And tears welled in his eyes as we reviewed his students’ achievement, one-by-one, recalling our favorite memories from the year for each of them.

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