A blog following teacher Aaron Jura as he plans engaging, yet relevant English Language Arts content for High School students in New Orleans, LA.
As I have previously posted, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a 2016-2017 fellow with the LEAD program through an amazing school student and teacher advocacy organization called Stand for Children. This fellowship provides an opportunity for those in the profession of education to study, discuss, and engage on issues affecting public school children in the state and nation.
For our first module we studied teacher evaluation and observation. You can read the reports and previous study commentary on this blog post. Following our independent readings and discussions we engaged in a virtual town hall discussion on the topic with experts on the topic of teacher evaluation and observation. The conversation got me thinking about what exactly it is that makes a good teacher good.
During our town hall, Dr. Gary Jones (retired superintendent and current representative to BESE District 5) really got my mind thinking when he posed a few rhetorical questions. How do you concretely define what is an ideal student and how do you concretely define and assess the characteristics of a good teacher? Without a clear definition of what success looks like it will always be an issue to accurately judge a teacher as being good/bad/or otherwise.
Many of the esteemed representatives on the town hall panel seemed to agree that they know a good teacher when they see one. One representative on the panel talked about it as a “walks on water” teacher. While we can all determine good/bad instruction when we see it, the real question is how can we set a standardized evaluation model that takes into account all of the numerous factors that make up a good teacher.
It left me thinking, is a good teacher one that gets results (student test scores on standardized high stakes exams) or is a good teacher much more than that. I believe a good teacher is so much more than the results on a particular test. Participant Dr. Laura Goe (researcher with ETS) stated that one thing that stands out in the American system of evaluation versus other countries is that nearly no other country judges the effectiveness of the teacher on the standardized test data (SLT, VAM, or otherwise) of that teacher’s students. Why? What I got from the overall conversation goes back to the original rhetorical questions posed by Dr. Jones: what is the definition of success? One student might be successful because he or she is the first to graduate from high school in their family, while another student would feel successful based upon acceptance to an ivy league college. Success cannot be determined based upon a cookie cutter definition that doesn’t consider the fact that students are people and are unique. What makes one student a success might not be even on the realm of possibilities for another. These definitions need to be clearer in order to ensure fairness in determining what makes a successful teacher.
Another point of this debate that I found to be poignant is that good teacher provides so much more than content. If you think about the best teacher you ever had you will likely remember non-quantitative factors. I don’t think about the best teacher I ever had as the one that helped me pass this test or that test. Instead, I think about the personality of the teacher and the inspiration I got from the person. I think about how the teacher created an environment to think creatively and sometimes to fail. I would say she was a successful teacher in that I now am a teacher and think of her often. This type of logical analysis cannot be done using a rubric alone. Teachers and students alike are human beings and intrinsically unique. Teacher evaluation and judging the differences between bad and good instruction must be done with flexibility and an overall view of the teacher, their students, and the unique goals of their teaching population.
When reading these reports (see link buttons below), I was struck with a line in the Aspen Institute’s Roadmap to Improvement reading. The Aspen Institute said that current evaluator training and certification programs “… send the message that the main purpose of evaluation is to rate teachers, rather than support their professional growth.” I’m sure many classroom teachers could agree with this claim as the current state of teacher evaluation in the state. Even on a teacher level, colleagues will often focus on the rating as opposed to focusing on the feedback given. Getting anywhere near a reflective practice will require changes in the ways that leadership and educators in the classroom view evaluation and observation. The reflective nature of observation and evaluation is also highlighted in the principles listed in the CCSSO report titled Principles for Teacher Support and Evaluation Systems. The first principle listed sums up the main issue that the purpose of evaluation and observation must be better defined and tied to student achievement AND professional growth. Getting to a place where teachers feel supported through evaluation and observational feedback is an important goal. In order to increase buy-in and in some cases re-legitimize the profession as a profession and not merely a job is an important element too.
In my experience, there is a clear management gap that must be addressed at the leadership level in order to focus on selling any new observation or evaluation tool. Managing people is very difficult and does not come naturally to some people. I have observed nearly every leader I have ever worked with struggle to communicate with classroom teachers about observational feedback. The leader often presents as timid or overly aggressive and ultimately unfocused on the ultimate goal of professional development.
Student achievement can be positively impacted through effective observational feedback that directly relates to improving teaching practice. Also, doesn’t it just make sense to directly tie the feedback to the student’s ultimate success? Most teachers do what they do because they believe in their students and want to see them succeed. If the conversation is moved toward students and away from the hypercritical teacher centered rating I would say that the messaging issue relating to this being about the students and their success and not merely on the educator and their perceived challenge areas.
Fairness, credibility, and transparency would be my next area of interest. When I worked for General Electric in management many of the elements of an employee’s observation were available for viewing and analysis by the team. It shouldn’t be scary to share about your evaluation and observational feedback. I think that celebrating student achievement could be the focus of PD’s – discussing solid classroom practices that increase critical thinking while also positively impacting engagement. This is where I think that peer groups or professional learning communities (PLCs) could be a big asset to a refined evaluation model. A well implemented PLC program could be very beneficial when refocusing back to reflective practice and performance improvement. Colleagues can be a huge asset to improving teacher performance and nurturing/fostering an environment where that is celebrated would help educators and also leverage the highly effective qualities of others to improve our own performance in the classroom.
We ask students to constantly reflect on things and to consider new possibilities. I believe that teachers should be consistently engaged with doing the same thing about their own practices to positively impact student achievement. In the Aspen Institute report I was also struck with how they described how a prescriptive plan for improvement would be more effective to better develop teacher professional growth. I think this could be a very interesting way to use a Professional Growth Plan (PGP). In a perfect scenario, the PGP would be formed with the observer as a focus area for teacher improvement. Based on previous observations or evaluation information, feedback from PLC group, and self-reflections teachers could work with their evaluator to monitor and improve teacher effectiveness. This would of course look differently in every setting, but I think some fluidity at the local level could allow the PGP to be a tool for student achievement and at the same time be a conversation point or focus area for the teacher and evaluator throughout the year.
Addressing the guiding question, I believe that the stigma of evaluation needs to be addressed and many people in leadership roles need to be better versed in the objective of the evaluation. If the evaluation/observation is used to encourage teachers to do better for their students and their future students, then the evaluation system can be used as a level for improving student achievement. Secondly, I think that addressing this messaging concern could also help to make the experience for new teachers and those who are veterans more rewarding. By encouraging improved performance for students through reflective critique and peer support systems we could also impact the severe problem of teacher retention. Elevating the job of teaching to the profession of educating is a message I believe anyone in the field can get behind.
Here are links to the articles I referenced in the post:
On Wednesday (11/23/16) president-elect Trump announced he was selecting school voucher and privatization advocate Betsy DeVoss to lead the US Department of Education. Unlike her predecessor, DeVoss has no history working with public schools, never attended a public school, sent all her children to private school, and arguably is woefully unprepared to lead the US Department of Education.
The primary objective of Betsy DeVoss throughout her time in educational politics has been to increase access to school vouchers and thereby increase the charter school landscape in many American cities. DeVoss and president-elect Trump both are in support of increased access to school vouchers, which has consistently been proven to be a nightmare for already disadvantaged students attending public schools nationwide.
In Michigan, the state where DeVoss has made most of her efforts in education teacher attrition is at an all-time high. Research has always proven that students are not best served by inexperienced, unprepared educators. In Michigan, the “business cycle” has been impacting student performance for quite a while. The privatization of education is well known in New Orleans, and Michigan has been going through big changes toward charter schools since 1993. The Great Lakes Education Project, which DeVoss started and funded, pushes charter schools (particularly in urban settings) and has not been able to produce results. As a matter of fact, in 2009 Detroit’s school system (heavily inundated with charter school operators) was the lowest performing district in the nation – New Orleans was not far off.
When looking at ideas like DeVoss’s we must focus on the key objective – the welfare of our students. In cases where charter schools and school choice really took off we cannot say that there have been major successes. Most of the growth is minimal and cannot be sustained over extended time periods – indicating that students are not succeeding. I would argue that students would see more success if we encourage stability in the system, not massive change. Students in high school today have already undergone at least 5 major curricular policy changes during their academic careers. They have dealt with numerous changes to testing at an almost unthinkable level. Teacher attrition has reached a crisis point, especially impacting students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. While I am not saying all this is attributable to DeVoss and people who think about educating the nation like she does, I am saying that the key objective is not being met if we stay on a track where mediocre results can be spun into gold through the mouths of billionaire lobbyists who have a vested interest in ensuring that society creates more worker bees instead of educated thinkers and critical analysts. I propose that we stop pretending like political elites know what’s best for students and focus on retaining talented educators in our public school systems to ensure that students are well served and provided with a well-rounded education.
Mr. J is a high school teacher in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mr. J believes in the power of educators to help children and families achieve. Follow his blog for tips and techniques to keep engagement high and student achievement at the forefront.