I often recommend individual articles of ASCD's Educational Leadership to colleagues and students, but occasionally I can commend an entire issue to be read cover to cover. That's the case with the recent November 2012 edition, dedicated to the topic of teacher evaluation. If the articles in this issue, penned by some of the nation's top education thinkers, are any measure, Kentucky's recent efforts to revise its teacher evaluation system could make it a model in the nation. But that depends entirely on how effectively Kentucky can implement its plans.
States and federal policy makers have been working hard to improve the teacher evaluation process, in part as a reaction to the headline-grabbing 2010 report from the New Teacher Project called The Widget Effect (which students study in my EDAD 590 class, Administration of School Personnel). The Widget Effect illustrated in the starkest of terms how profoundly school leaders have failed to develop and use evaluation systems that distinguish teacher performance levels and promote meaningful professional growth and development.
In light of recent policy changes to improve teacher evaluation, the authors in Educational Leadership explore the topic from multiple angles, reflecting on "what's fair" as well as "what's effective." A partial list of examples:
- Paul Mielke and Tony Frontier discuss using comprehensive frameworks of effective teaching, like those developed by Robert Marzano and Charlotte Danielson, for establishing a clear picture of what teaching should look like and as a rubric for assessing teacher performance.
- Robert Marzano himself writes about the two purposes of teacher evaluation - measuring teacher performance and developing teacher effectiveness - and how a good evaluation system should do both.
- Susan Moore Johnson and Sarah Fiarman reflect on the role of peer reviews in helping teachers gain self awareness regarding their strengths and weaknesses.
- Charlotte Danielson shares strategies to help school leaders sharpen their skills of observation, so they can more accurately apply rubrics to assess the effectiveness of what they see in the classroom.
- And other authors discuss the possibilities and pitfalls of using various value-added measures to ascertain the impact a given teacher has had on a given group of students' performance in a single year.
Kentucky is not specifically mentioned, but anyone familiar with the sweeping changes to teacher evaluation currently being piloted in Kentucky schools (often called by the acronym PGES) will recognize that the Commonwealth is attempting to address and incorporate almost every feature identified by these authors.
Kentucky's framework for effective teaching is based closely on Charlotte Danielson's (I actually prefer Marzano's, but any comprehensive framework is better than the loose set of standards and indicators we had before). The proposed system involves peer observation, focuses heavily on reflection and goal setting to for encouraging professional growth and improvement, and features thoughtful approaches to using gains in student achievement as one indicator of effectiveness.
On paper, it looks great. I am a bit skeptical, however, of any state-mandated policy fixes that are intended to make sweeping improvements of practice in multiple contexts. Not that the specific features of PGES are flawed. I actually think they are well-crafted. But I also know that the effectiveness of any structure depends largely on the leaders who are using them. And the variance in the performance effectiveness of school administrators is even greater than that of teachers.
It's also unclear which dimensions of PGES will make it through the pilot testing phases of implementation. And other concerns abound. We already know that administrators are chronically prone to inflating teacher performance evaluations. Now that teacher performance actually counts as a component of school-wide accountability, the temptation to go easy on teachers will be greater than ever unless some mechanism is established to address discrepancies in schools where teacher evaluation is high but student performance remains low.
Since I no longer have the front-row seat on evaluation like I once did as a practitioner, I can only wait to hear from my students and colleagues how it will all unfold. On the surface, however, Kentucky's educators should be excited about these developments. If we can do it well (a huge "if"), Kentucky could easily become a state example of what powerful and effective teacher evaluation should look like.