As states changed teacher evaluation laws and policies in response to Race to theTop, little discussion took place regarding what the new system already assumed. There is an urgent need for this discussion. Schools are complex systems, with complex programs—and, as we've seen, teacher evaluation systems are among the most complex. The more complex the system is, the more assumptions it involves (Nkwake, 2013). These systems are used to make high-stakes decisions involving hiring, firing and compensation. Ignoring the assumptions that underlie our teacher evaluation programs can be detrimental to the intended outcomes and bring about unintended outcomes and consequences. We need to reimagine how we evaluate teachers through the lens of proven educator engagement, professional learning communities, teamwork and inquiry, and work to become learning organizations.
A Foundation Built on Sand
The faulty assumptions involved in assessing teacher effectiveness have infiltrated our profession like a computer virus, tainting all that we do, digging us into a deep hole of less than impactful programs, actions and theories. In order to create a teacher evaluation program that will produce the intended outcomes of professional and student learning, the assumptions that our current system is built upon must be examined. Without proper examination of stated and implicit assumptions, change cannot occur. "A plan based on faulty assumptions is not likely to bring about the desired goal" (Nkwake, 2013, p. 45). We must examine the assumptions and change them as appropriate in order to have the desired impact on behavior and actions.
The past twenty years of educational reform have focused on raising student achievement for minorities, special education students and students from low-income households, and on increasing college and career readiness. High-quality teaching and employing high-quality teachers is a more recent reform effort implemented with the federal government's involvement via Race to the Top funds available through the American Recovery Act. The funds provided by the federal government encouraged states to redefine high-quality teaching and redesign their teacher evaluation systems. However, little has changed in the area of teacher evaluation. Teachers and principals are frustrated and confused, while student achievement remains stagnant.
All performance evaluation systems are built on assumptions. Those assumptions can be stated or unstated, explicit or implicit. In order to bring about progressive change to any program, the implicit assumptions must be made explicit. After the assumptions have been recognized, they must be evaluated. Do the assumptions contribute to achieving the desired outcomes of the program? If the answer is no, new assumptions must be developed, stated and reflected upon in light of the program's desired outcomes.
There is confusion regarding the purposes of teacher evaluations. It has been stated that there are two purposes of teacher evaluation, formative and summative, or measurement of effective teaching and professional development. A system built on measuring teacher quality will look very different from a system focusing on professional learning (Marzano, 2012; Papay, 2012). Based upon the stated purpose, varying assumptions take hold. Teacher evaluations have struggled with adhering to the two purposes simultaneously. The two purposes interlock and create a tension between what needs to happen and what happens. In the case of teacher evaluations, the systems do not measure the most impactful actions teachers can undertake to increase student learning. Yet we continue to use evaluations to measure effective teaching. The problem is compounded by the need for schools to use evaluation as a professional growth opportunity, hence the dual purpose. The problem is, what if the construct we are seeking to measure is not impactful in terms of the desired outcomes? If that is the case, what are we learning to do as a result of those measurements?
That brings us to the central question: is teacher evaluation available to measure and assess teaching, or is the purpose of evaluation to promote professional learning? These dual purposes have been hard to explicate in policy and practice. "We have erroneously spent a century thinking that evaluators control improvement. Evaluators do not control improvement. Teachers do" (Hazi, 2018, p. 201).
Case Study: An All Too Common Story
At Parkside Elementary, school is three weeks into session. The kids have settled down, the teachers are in a groove and Mrs. Rees, the principal, must begin her formal observations of teachers—and soon, because each teacher needs at least one observation each quarter. After each observation, Mrs. Rees is required to meet face-to-face with the teacher to discuss what she saw. School has just started, but Mrs. Rees is already up against the teacher evaluation clock.
One of the first to be observed is Mr. Samuels, a second-grade teacher. As Mrs. Rees looks on, students ask higher-order questions, enthusiastically discuss the text and write down their thoughts. Mrs. Rees knows by experience and research that the environment in the classroom will have an impact on student learning. After all, Mr. Samuels has been one of Mrs. Rees' best teachers for the last 10 years. After 40 minutes, Mrs. Rees leaves Mr. Samuels' room.
Mrs. Rees makes her way to the room of Mrs. Hernandez, a second-grade teacher in her third year of teaching, still trying to find her place. Mrs. Rees thinks Mrs. Hernandez has potential, but needs to work on engaging the students, a skill that would help her manage the classroom more effectively. Mrs. Rees observes for 40 minutes, takes notes regarding some areas to improve in student engagement and classroom management as well as some positives that she saw, and moves on to a third-grade classroom.
While Mrs. Rees is observing the third-grade teacher, the second-grade team has a collaboration meeting. Mrs. Rees is unable to attend because she is busy observing. This is a frustrating situation for Mrs. Rees. The third-grade team at Parkside has always been very strong. Mrs. Rees sees little need for her to observe all third-grade teachers for 40-plus minutes.
Mrs. Rees would love to facilitate the second-grade team collaborations and help them analyze data, create action plans, talk about student needs and ultimately lead them to a shared understanding of effective teaching. She knows her presence there is needed. Beyond that, Mrs. Rees thinks
Mr. Samuels could be a guide for Mrs. Hernandez. Mrs. Jones thinks she could mentor Mr. Samuels and help him build the confidence he needs to help Mrs. Hernandez grow professionally—a move that would help both teachers.
Mrs. Rees would love to schedule her observations around collaborations, as she did last year. But there are only so many hours in a day. After meeting with teacher teams and conducting individual observations and conferences, when is Mrs. Rees supposed to meet with parents, central office staff and community members? So, like many principals, Mrs. Rees has simply fallen into a mode of compliance, observing teachers, holding the face-to-face conferences, filling out rubrics and writing narratives of observations. The deep collaborative instructional conversations she yearns to have with her teachers rarely take place. She is wasting her and her teachers' time, wallowing in the teacher evaluation muck.
Perhaps the story of Mrs. Rees is why we do not witness school improvement or successful initiatives on a large scale. The current trend of teacher evaluation systems in this country are killing the power of instructional leadership and professional learning for teachers and principals because the system has faulty assumptions. Principals are drowning in compliance with these systems and teachers are driving themselves crazy trying to receive the best "score" possible. Neither way of thinking will help foster the environments schools need to move forward.
Reward-and-punishment, or carrot-and-stick accountability programs, are not the answer to school underperformance, and the research is very clear on this fact.
(Lassiter, 2012, p. 3)
Principals observing teachers and leading them to improvement is flawed. Using principal observations as the main activity to improve schools does not make any sense in light of relevant research on teamwork, PLCs and collective efficacy. The PLC process creates shared responsibility, understanding, goals and objectives. "Today's schools don't need 'instructional leaders' who attempt to ensure that teachers use the right moves. Instead, schools need learning leaders who create a schoolwide focus on learning both for students and the adults who serve them" (Dufour and Mattos, 2013, p. 39). We need new processes and new assumptions to rebuild our systems that focus more on learning and development and less on measurement.
The culture in which this work takes place is what separates the high- from low-performing schools. In order to leverage the full potential, we must move away from carrot and stick accountability programs and tap into the intrinsic desire to teach.
(Lassiter, 2012, p. 8)