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Coaching Teachers Toward Growth: Evaluation in Washington State

November 07, 2012

Ever gotten up early on a Saturday morning to talk education policy? That’s just what several dozen Washingtonians did last month. Convening at Bow-Lake Elementary in Sea-Tac, the group discussed the implementation of Washington’s new teacher evaluation system, which must be in place by the 2015-2016 school year.

The dialogue was hosted by the Washington New Millennium Initiative (NMI), a team of Puget Sound region teachers who are committed to improving public schools.

What we learned was no surprise. What we want from effective teacher evaluations is what we want from effective student assessments.

Or, modified slightly:

Effective teacher evaluations will do for teachers what effective student assessments do for students.

  • High-quality student assessments perform certain essential roles:
  • measure what they purport to measure;
  • align with the content and skills students are expected to know or perform;
  • provide timely feedback, identifying students’ areas of proficiency or non-proficiency; and
  • inform the teacher’s next steps guiding the differentiation of instruction while highlighting the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of teaching strategies.

In one of the videos presented that Saturday morning, teachers said they wanted these four elements from an evaluation system:

  • Knowledgeable evaluators;
  • Clear goals to serve students better;
  • Continuous conversations about improving practice; and
  • Collaborative professional learning connected to evaluation results.

Notice how these characteristics align with those of effective student assessments?

Let’s look more closely at what Washington teachers say matters:

1. Knowledgeable Evaluators

Knowledgeable evaluators—with expertise in the subject taught by the evaluated teacher—are best positioned to observe and evaluate. Evaluators lacking sufficient content knowledge may not be able to measure what they are supposed to measure, and they are less likely to record observations that will help teachers improve.

2. Clear Goals

Establishing clear goals ties teacher evaluations directly to the key competencies and skills required by Washington State. For example, consider a teacher who will be evaluated on her ability to maximize student potential by establishing high expectations for all students. What if, prior to evaluations, the teacher could identify (with her evaluator) what “high expectations” means in a classroom of diverse learners?

Chief Sealth International High School teacher Amber Allison explained the value of pre-conferences in the evaluation process. Through initial conversation, the evaluator gains insight into the classroom’s context, helping to establish clear goals relevant to the teacher’s evaluation.

3. Continuous Conversations About Improving Practice

Meaningful evaluations provide teachers with timely, ongoing feedback that identifies areas of strength and areas for professional growth. Joshua Cohen, also of Chief Sealth, explains that an evaluator who provides feedback should return to see whether the teacher has implemented changes. Open lines of communication between the teacher and evaluator can encourage dialogue and lead to improved practice.

4. Collaborative Professional Learning Connected to Evaluation Results

A teacher’s evaluation results should inform the principal’s next steps that will help to improve the teacher’s practice. When those next steps involve peer-to-peer collaboration, teachers become a resource for one another to grow together.

Consider a school that has agreed to implement a certain strategy to improve student learning—and that has made the shared goal a part of the evaluation process. If the “sum of the parts” show that the school is not reaching its goal, then collaborative professional development can help teachers grow as a team.

This is the type of scenario Mike Wentzel, of Chief Sealth, envisions. Currently, evaluations happen in isolation rather than a group context, and may look drastically different from one classroom to the next. When evaluators link evaluations to subsequent collaborative professional development, teachers can work together to improve their skills and meet shared goals.

Where Do Effective Teachers Come From, Anyway?

Effective teachers are made, not born. Some suggest that “either you have it or you don’t”—but the participants I met at this kick-off were having none of that. Instead, the general opinion seemed be that teaching is a craft, and like any craft, can be improved with practice and feedback.

A transparent, effective evaluation system will include knowledgeable evaluators who give timely and consistent feedback designed to help teachers improve. Consider the alternative: waiting for our best teachers to be born…

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