Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Formative Teacher Evaluations

I wonder what it might look like if we had "Formative Teacher Evaluations."

It's not the evaluation itself that feels like a game of gotcha, it's the high-stakes that are attached.  When evaluations are used to make staffing decisions like retention and dismissal, then teachers become interested in "getting through" the evaluation process.  I've heard stories about how teachers would behave complete different on a day when they know that they are going to be visited than on a typical day.

Most teachers have never left the education system.  It's important to remember this.  What does this mean?  How is the education system different than the worlds of science or business?  How does this culture affect teacher evaluation and school reform?

The education system is a universe populated correct answers.  The correct answers live in the teacher's edition of the text, in the teacher's mind, or at the feedback end of an exam or product.  In the science and science and business universe, there are right answers too, but in these spaces, right answers are the tools that we use to find the answers that no one knows.

Teachers who have never left the educational universe continue to look at their work through these lenses.  First, there is an authority whose supposed to know the right answer (the administrator, the District, the State).  Currently, observations and evaluations are like tests and quizzes for the teacher.  Some teachers do habitually well on these assessments; these teachers are not worried about evaluations.  Some teachers do poorly.  

Just like in school, it's the ones who do poorly who have captured our attention.  We can see parallels between a teacher who has done poorly on an evaluation and a student who has done poorly on an exam.  

Perhaps they will see the failure as a function of their actions.  "I didn't study as well as I should have," says the student.  "I didn't plan enough material for the period, and I didn't have any systems in place to use the last 10 minutes of class effectively," says the teacher.

Perhaps they will see the failure as a function of their personalities.  "I'm just not smart.  I'm going to drop out," says the student.  "I'm not a good teacher; I need to find another profession," says the teacher.

Perhaps they will try to escape the shame of failure by shifting the blame away from them or their behavior.  "The teacher doesn't explain the subject well," says the student.  "The principal couldn't do any better; and these kids would behave if there were real consequences to their behavior," says the teacher.

What if teacher evaluations, and for that matter student assessments, formative in nature?  We have been actively looking at shifting classroom culture away from summative assessments.  We've been actively trying to deal with the student in my above examples; we try to use the assessments not as motivators or judgments of behaviors, but as feedback for the teacher and students together.  

When teachers use formative assessments in the classroom, the focus moves away from what a student did right or wrong.  Instead, the formative assessment tells the teacher and the student what each should do next.  The student failed the section on dividing fractions.  This means that the teacher needs to find some time to sit down with the students and explain this concept a different way.  It also means that the teacher may need to design a new learning experience that will help the student learn the concept.  This same formative assessment tells the student that s/he needs to find some additional time learning about dividing fractions.  It tells the student that s/he needs to be open and willing to try the new learning experience and try to learn the concept a second time.

A poor teacher observation could work the same way.  The principal walked into my class during the last 10 minutes and saw children chatting, off task, and wandering the room.  This tells the principal that I need some more training on planning lessons to take the entire class period, and/or that I need some fresh ideas for 10-minute soak activities for my subject matter that would look fun for kids while being instructional.  This same observation tells me the same information.

Teacher observations and student outcome data can and should be used to drive the professional development for departments, small learning communities, and schools.  PD time and activities can and should be focused on the current needs of teachers, with schools and districts allowing for multiple groups of teachers to be working on different types of PD in parallel; call this differentiated PD.

For pre-service and 1st - 3rd year teachers, the data of teacher formative assessment should also go back to the teacher-training program they came from to help guide the evolution of their practice.  The results of their teacher observations, student outcome data, and teacher reflections on the PD that they have gone to as a results of this data should all go back to the university, TfA, OTF, or where ever.

Turning teacher observations and student outcome data into formative assessments for teachers have positive outcomes:

1. Teachers will feel less threatened by the observations and data. 

2. It will build a culture of trust between administrators and teachers since both sides are actively trying to use these tools to help teachers get better.

3. It will inform our teacher credential programs how they can evolve and improve

Someday, down the road, we may find ourselves in a place where a teacher should be let go, because even after multiple attempts with PD and training, they are still not performing.  This is still going to be a difficult time for the teacher and the administrator.  Just like in the classroom, there might still be a time when after all of the formative assessments and interventions, the child still fails the class or still is suspended or expelled for his/her behavior.  Using formative assessments in the classroom wont make this go away.  Likewise, teacher formative assessments wont remove the problem of having to fire a teacher.

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