For a number of reasons, there has been a lot of interest lately in how to improve the evaluation of teachers. First, the Education Department’s Race to the Top competition which has added billions to reform efforts requires that new systems of teacher evaluation be designed that are more rigorous and selective. Second, there is less money for public education and making sure that schools have the right people in the classroom has become more of a priority than ever. Third, a series of research studies about the factors that contribute most to education improvement have consistently shown that good teaching is, by far, the most decisive variable. It’s pretty clear good teaching makes a big difference for student learning and achievement. So how do we come up with a system that supports and further develops excellent teachers, mentors struggling teachers toward greater effectiveness, fairly and efficiently eliminates the weakest instructors, and reflects the complexities of good teaching at its best?
As recently reported by Sam Dillon in the New York Times, Washington D.C.’s Public Schools think they have an answer. Under their system, administrators and a corps of master educators share responsibility for observing and evaluating teachers using an agreed upon set of criteria that are linked to the research on good teaching. They also rely on student achievement test scores, but the observations are at the heart of the new approach. Unfortunately, some commentators have said that the system is much better at weeding out teachers than helping them to develop pedagogical expertise, and too often the master educators come across as more adversarial than nurturing.
A less touted but perhaps more promising model for evaluating teachers has been used for some time in Montgomery County, Maryland and was recently explored in an article for the New York Times by Michael Winerip. Called PAR – Peer Assistance and Review – this approach enlists hundreds of senior teachers as mentors to struggling teachers, not to evaluate them, but to help them get better. Teachers can only be discontinued when a PAR panel made up of an equal number of administrators and teachers is convinced that improvement has not occurred. This system emphasizes professional development at least as much as evaluation and enjoys district-wide support.
If teacher evaluation is going to work, there is no doubt that good teaching needs to be defined carefully, that a comprehensive program of professional development to help all teachers improve needs to be in place, and that better and more efficient procedures for eliminating weak teachers must be established. All of these are non-negotiables. Somehow, though, these ideas, despite their importance, miss a critical point about the realities of effective teaching, especially in K-12 schools.
School teaching, we now know, can no longer be a private, individualistic, behind-closed-doors endeavor. Teaching is, in fact, at its best when it is a highly public, collaborative and communal enterprise. When teaching and curriculum development are openly and widely shared and when colleagues know each other’s professional strengths and weaknesses well, it is unquestionably the case that teaching gets better. Strong teachers become even stronger and struggling teachers often blossom. When communication throughout a school is transparent and free across subject matters and grade levels, educators are better able to work together to serve the children in their charge. They can plan and coordinate lessons and curricula so that they build on what has come before and anticipate what is to come. When a school creates a culture where teaching and learning are shared enterprises, the areas in need of improvement can be more easily spotted and strategies for making change can be arrived at collaboratively. Such collaboration pushes everyone to perform at their best.
In the end, this is all a way of saying that although we will always need to evaluate individual teachers, an equally important indicator of excellence is the performance of the school as whole and how each individual educator is contributing to the ongoing betterment of that whole. Future systems of evaluation, then, must put more far more emphasis on whole school effectiveness and improvement and on the role that individuals are playing in supporting teamwork, mutual accountability, and shared responsibility for attaining shared goals. The next step for evaluating teaching, therefore, must pair measures of whole school improvement with the assessment of individual performance. Only then will teacher evaluation capture the complexities of K-12 instruction and begin to meet the challenges of 21st century school reform.