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PGES: Call me a hopeful skeptic

Kentucky's new Teacher Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES) presents a major challenge for school leaders and seeks to redefine the relationship between principals and teachers and the conversations they have about instruction.  I've been working my way through the same online PGES training principals are required to complete to formally evaluate teachers using the new system so I can effectively address these topics in my own education administration courses. 

There is so much to admire in PGES, and there's no doubt about its intention to address the problem of meaningless teacher evaluations.  As the 2009 report The Widget Effect illustrated in stark terms, the prevailing systems of teacher evaluation have traditionally failed to distinguish between high and low-performing teachers, or to provide the kinds of meaningful feedback that would actually help teachers improve their practice. 

But for all the possibilities PGES presents, I remain a skeptic, if perhaps a deeply hopeful one.  As I've written before, data from other states that have already revamped their evaluation systems are not encouraging, and now a recent article by three prominent education researchers - Joe Murphy, Phillip Hallinger, and Ronald Heck - suggests caution in expecting enhanced evaluation systems to significantly improve teaching practice.

Last Spring I wrote about a New York Times article exploring the results of new teacher evaluations in multiple states, including Florida, Michigan, Tennessee, Connecticut, and Washington, DC.  After investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours in new evaluation systems designed to better distinguish levels of teacher performance, these states found that principals were still rating more than 90 percent of all teachers as effective or highly effective. Only tiny percentages of teachers were identified as "ineffective" or "developing."

It would seem these efforts were a monumental waste of time and money with only a handful of possible explanations for the results.  One would be the absurd suggestion of teacher union boss Randi Weingarten (cited in the NYT article) that this outcome just proves most teachers are already very good at their jobs.  While I believe many teachers are, in fact, quite effective, any half-awake person who has ever walked into a school can attest that the percentage of effective teachers is nowhere near 98 percent, as evaluations from Michigan and Tennessee suggest.

Another explanation would be that these evaluation systems are poorly crafted and therefore don't provide a good structure for distinguishing teacher performance, or that principals are poorly trained in how to use them.  I am completely unfamiliar with the systems from these others states, and can't make a judgment in this regard.  But if their evaluation systems are anywhere close to Kentucky's PGES framework, then I doubt this explanation.

The foundation of Kentucky's new evaluation system is Charlotte Danielson's research-based Framework for Effective Teaching, a very well-crafted rubric with descriptors that clearly describe the differences of specific teaching behaviors at four levels of effectiveness.  I haven't actually used any of the PGES instruments to evaluate real teachers in the field - and this could remain a weak spot in the system - but based on the framework itself, I have a lot of faith that PGES should be able to function as it is designed.

The final, and I believe most likely, explanation is that principals are simply lacking the emotional courage to use the evaluation tools as designed to give teachers the meaningful, critical feedback they deserve.  Moreover, the structure of schooling, tenure laws, leadership turnover, and the all-encompassing managerial duties of the principal may all be confounding variables that just cause otherwise well-intentioned administrators to conclude that using evaluations to accurately describe teacher performance is simply not worth it.

All of these variables are explored from the perspective of empirical research in Murphy, Hallinger, and Heck's article, "Leading via Teacher Evaluation: The Case of the Missing Clothes" from the August/September 2013 issue of the journal Educational Researcher.  Reviewing the history of teacher evaluation practices and research on their effectiveness, the authors conclude that evaluation systems have never had a meaningful impact on teaching practice or student learning, and most likely never will.  They cite the difficulty of connecting specific evaluation mechanisms with teacher practices in a way that can be studied empirically, as well as the nature of schooling itself which does not reward and support principal efforts to focus on instructional leadership.

However, Murphy et al. do suggest there are research-based instructional leadership functions that actually do make a difference in teacher performance:

Work here includes establishing a powerful sense of vision, with strong academic mission and challenging organizational goals and expectations...enhancing student opportunity to learn...developing and using data systems to inform and monitor instruction...creating personalized learning environments in which all youngsters are cared for, participate in, and have ownership of the school...developing a school culture conducive to learning...[and] providing alignment and cohesiveness to all school actions.

Furthermore, Murphy and colleagues identify four larger categories of principal behaviors that make a difference in teaching quality:

...providing actionable feedback to teachers...developing communities of practice in which teachers share goals, work, and responsibility for student outcomes...offering abundant support for the work of teachers..and creating systems in which teachers have the opportunity to routinely develop and refine their skills.

None of these principal activities must rely on the teacher evaluation system for their effectiveness.  In fact, these activities are most likely high-leverage behaviors even under the old, clunky teacher evaluation system.  Perhaps we could save all this time and money we are currently investing in PGES and focus, instead, on leadership behaviors that really make a difference.

 Of course, none of these activities contradict the goals or structures of PGES either.  In fact, the teaching framework that undergirds PGES, and the kinds of conversations that PGES prompts between principals and teachers, might be deeply facilitative of the kinds of principal behaviors described above.

For better or worse, PGES is with us for awhile.  My deep hope is that it will cause school principals to think much more deeply about the qualities of effective teaching, and to engage with teachers in more meaningful discussions about classroom practice.  Where PGES makes a difference, it will likely be because individual principals have found a way to integrate it seamlessly into their larger strategy of instructional leadership.

As Ric Hess pointed out recently in his thoughtful article for National Affairs, education reform structures have universally failed to change educational practices.  But leadership does make a difference.  While I remain skeptical of PGES, I remain deeply hopeful about the power of reflective leaders to use whatever structures are available to make a difference in teaching and learning.


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Sara Jennings

I completely agree with your thought-provoking analysis. I believe the system will be a great jump start for a paradigm shift for educators. We must begin to acknowledge the reality that we are not perfect, and that we should work to better our practices for the benefit of the students. By remembering that the evaluation is more about impacting an outcome - student learning - educators can quit taking the critism so personally and begin viewing it with a growth mindset.

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