Teacher evaluation panel 2013 Education Writers Association National Seminar

On Friday at the Education Writers Association National Seminar at Stanford University, I’ll speak on a panel titled K-12 Teacher Evaluation: Seeking Common Ground with a professor and school district administrator:

Linda Darling-Hammond, Standford Graduate School of Education

David Steele, Hillsborough County Florida School District

Our focus question is “What are the best ways to draw an accurate picture of a teacher’s performance?” and our moderator is Dale Mezzacappa from the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

This is the statement I prepared:

Thank you to the Education Writers Association for inviting my teacher voice to be part of this panel.

Our profession has changed. In 1995, when I began my teaching career, I did not have an email address. The Internet was barely finding its way into our schools.

Today, even on Chicago’s Southwest side where almost 100% of my school’s population is low-income, almost every student has a cell phone with Internet access.

A bigger change is that teacher evaluation has gone from being private (between teachers and principals) to being public (between the teacher and anybody and everybody).

After today, I hope more journalists include teachers’ voices in their reporting. Too often, teachers’ voices are not the ones quoted online or in print. We can help to create common ground by articulating the truths and misunderstandings about our profession.

In Chicago, we moved away from a 1980s checklist of extremes with strengths and weaknesses. Now, we use four clearly defined levels of performance for four domains:

1: Planning and Preparation

2: Classroom Environment

3: Instruction

4: Professional Responsibilities

This evaluation system finally articulates what some in our profession and some in teacher-preparation programs feared to define—what is a good teacher?

My students at Hancock High School know:

“Good teachers,” one student wrote, “believe even the student in the back of the class with his head down can succeed.”

“Good teachers challenge students to surpass what they already know–so they achieve academic success.”

“Good teachers react quickly when they notice a student is struggling.”

“Bad teachers,” on the other hand one wrote, “don’t know how to incorporate the outside world with in-class assignments.”

“Bad teachers think they are always right.”

One truth about teacher evaluation is that it must be designed to help teachers improve. An accurate picture of a teacher’s performance is gained by making the evaluation conversation a regular part of our day. We must watch ourselves and others teach. We must examine student work. We must have the courage to say to colleagues, “I’m having trouble with this.” We must also find the courage to say to colleagues, “You’re assignment is not higher-level thinking.” Once-a-year classroom visits won’t help.

A good administrator or teacher knows the reality of the classroom and can engage teachers of all performance levels in a conversation to improve their practice. A wise retired principal told me that anyone can be trained to use the new evaluation system. But not everyone can use it to help a teacher improve. The evaluator needs to be or have been a successful educator.

If we focus on improving our practice, schools will retain good teachers. Bad teachers, and there are some, will know why they are ineffective and they can make a choice: improve or leave the profession.

In the overload of paperwork and politics, however, we can only improve teacher practice if we remember that doing what’s best for students is not enough. The truth is–we must do what’s best for students and what’s manageable for teachers.

In March, when I heard the Chicago Public Schools Chief Communications Officer say in the Chicago Tribune, “You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed.” I have to say, Becky Carroll—you have no idea what’s best for students and what’s manageable for teachers.

Giving students a voice in the teacher evaluations is beneficial and manageable for teachers. One of my students wrote, “A teacher can change the day the principal comes in. We’re the ones that see the real teacher every day and are affected by what he does.” We avoid unfair student evaluations by making student feedback a regular part of our instruction. We also need to ask targeted questions:

  • Does the teacher respect students?
  • Does the teacher give assignments that make you a better writer?

As we create safe environments where students feel comfortable with themselves, with each other, with people in power, good teachers do more than make students feel good about themselves. On report-card pick up day last month, I saw a tweet by a CPS teacher that read: “Ready to tell parents how amazing their kids are.”

I thought, “Really? You really think that parents don’t know this? That teacher should have said he was ready to tell parents what the student’s academic strengths and areas for development are and what they can do—together—to address these. That’s the tweet that should have gone out.

Incomplete education reporting also contributes to misunderstandings of what a good teacher does. In Chicago, the Academy for Urban School Leadership receives praise in the newspapers. This school-transformation organization uses Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov to train teachers. After a semester of teaching in an AUSL teacher-training academy, I left because, although I believe in a disciplined school, I do not believe in socializing students to be passive participants.

My blog post titled, “This School Year, Don’t Teach Like a Champion” challenges Lemov’s inaccurate definition of championship teaching. When the AUSL coach defined success by having me pass out papers in under 20 seconds, because she stood in the back and timed me, I said no–this is an ill-founded profession priority.

So I ask the journalists in the room, distinguish among these three aspects when reporting about teaching:

1. Classroom management: how class is run and how the students and teachers interact

2. Social-emotional development: how the teacher builds students’ confidence and recognizes their emotional struggles

3. Instruction: how students learn to read, to write, to think critically.

Observe the instruction and ask yourself–is this preparing students for success, one day, in my world?

We also have to stop looking at teachers through a lens of extremes: good teacher / bad teacher. These superficial polarized conversations are fueled by a recent blog post by education historian Diane Ravitch. “Maybe,” she said, “the Common Core Standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also fueled superficial polarization this week. While I accept her rationale for a two-year moratorium on Common Core testing, I challenge her extremes. She said, “I predict these standards will result in one of two outcomes. They will either lead to a revolution in teaching and learning. Or they will end up in the overflowing dust bin of abandoned reforms.” These views are like the outdated teacher evaluation checklist of extremes CPS just abandoned. We need more thoughtful reactions to enrich the teacher evaluation conversation.

The other misconception is that teachers cannot fight against the limits of our students’ poverty, violence, or tragedy. One of the blog posts I submitted for the EWA reporting contest is an article about Dulce Padilla whose brother was killed by gun fire and whose sister was murdered five years later. Dulce told me that, after the incident, all she wanted was time to heal. A clinical psychologist advised me to help students heal by providing age-appropriate opportunities to share their experiences—when they are ready to share.

When Dulce chose to write about her sister’s death for a personal essay assignment, I did not tell her how sorry I felt for her. That’s not my place as a writing teacher. Instead, I made sure Dulce used a semicolon correctly, unified her paragraphs, and defined her rhetorical purpose. If you read the article on my blog, you can read parts of her essay.

Some educators argue that our low-income, troubled students cannot learn the skills for the ACT because they have too much on their minds. To them and to everyone who believes this I say–good teachers help students heal and transcend their circumstances through academic work and social-emotional support.

Finally, while I believe the consequences of using standardized tests in teacher evaluation will cause more harm than good for students, I do believe that good teachers must incorporate the ACT College Readiness Standards or, now, transition to the Common Core Standards because if we ignore them, we perpetuate the classist, racist, sexist views many activists claim to be fighting against. Good teachers use these standards to help students enter a real-world conversation that matters to them.


In your view, what are the best ways to draw an accurate picture of a teacher’s performance?

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