Faulty Assumption #4: Teacher Evaluation Rubrics Must Incorporate As Many Characteristics of Effective Teaching As Possible
Another assumption that sounds logical but doesn't work holds that teacher evaluation rubrics should incorporate as many characteristics of effective teaching as possible.
Prior to the Race to the Top reforms in 2009, teacher evaluation documents usually had a few descriptions of teaching elements, each with a box to rate the teacher's performance as 1 ("low"), 2 ("on target"), or 3 ("above target"). Each state or district had its own terms, but the general premise was the same. Some documents also called for principals to rate teachers as unsatisfactory vs. satisfactory or effective vs. ineffective, linked to a statement regarding teaching. Most of these documents were just a few pages long and left little, if any space, for a narrative.
Fast forward to the 2010s. After Race to the Top, all states developed new teacher evaluation rubrics and systems. Some teacher evaluation documents are 15-45 pages long, with hundreds of bullet points describing effective and ineffective practices. The professionals using the tools are unable to find agreement on the definition of the terms used within, so state departments of education (such as the Colorado Department of Education) are foolishly attempting to ensure inter-rater reliability by defining them. Educators spend hours upon hours defining and arguing over terms and concepts in hopes of conclusively determining what is effective or not.
State agencies and even private companies have taken the 15-45-page documents and developed manuals of implementation that can reach hundreds of pages. We've gone from one extreme to the other—if the two-page carbon copy sheets were minimal, we've now switched to multi-page documents highlighting hundreds of concepts.
The types of strategies, programs and activities teachers can implement to impact student achievement are endless. I suppose someone thought they could write it all down and then attempt to hold teachers accountable. But this is a poor attempt at standardization of effective teaching. The more teaching strategies we mandate teachers use, the less freedom they have to use their intelligence and employ strategies that work in the context of their classrooms.
Hazi (2018) has noted that the evaluation documents tell us more about who created the document than about the teacher being judged by the tool. For example, the framework for teaching presented by the Danielson Group (Danielson Group, n.d.) assumes a constructivist approach to teaching. Is a constructivist approach to teaching always the best method? Of course, not. Danielson is a self-proponent of constructivism. I adhere to constructivist philosophy myself. But what if the unit being taught or the lesson being delivered was not intentionally constructivist? What if the day's lesson required, for good reason, a more behavioralist approach?
High-quality teaching must be defined at the local level, considering the local needs of the teachers and students through collaborative processes. Standardizing teaching to a checklist or bullet points is a troubling practice. Teachers and principals should be using teaching frameworks as a resource to solve local problems, not as inflexible rules. Otherwise, a school runs the risk of focusing on issues that really are not issues for them; their time and effort is wasted, and they do not move forward to solve the problems the surveys were intended to address.
Case Study: Positive Deviants
Mr. Craig was an elementary principal at a hard-to-staff school with societal challenges. High teacher turnover and high poverty created unique challenges for the staff to overcome, but overcome them they did! As one of the highest student-growth schools in the state, they were able to use their collective knowledge and efforts to improve at a rate higher than most schools in the state. That year, they showed moderate gains in achievement but great gains in student growth. The students did not necessarily achieve state-level benchmarks, but they learned and showed that learning through high levels of content standard growth.
It all started in a collaboration with his fifth-grade team very early in the school year. The team, consisting of the teachers and instructional coach, came to Mr. Craig with a set of math data and their anecdotal observations. Their observations and data showed a few skill and concept gaps that were having a negative effect on most students' overall math performance. They developed a plan and tracked their own data. He gave the teachers until October 1st to fill the gaps. By October 1st, the gaps were filled, and they were rolling! They had tremendous math and ELA growth—near the top in the state.
This situation could have gone a different way. At the beginning of the year, they had a 15-page teacher evaluation rubric, 83-page school improvement plan, curriculum protocols and scripted intervention plans. They had to make a decision. Implement programs that didn't fit the needs of their school, or collaborate to identify, prioritize and implement strategies that their kids needed. Mr. Craig sat down with his leadership team and told them,
The first thing we are going to do is forget about evaluations. Don't even think about it. I will talk to teams and individuals if I see a problem. If you see a problem, talk to me so we can action-plan support for teams or individual teachers. No one in this school needs to think about evaluation or worry about what their evaluation will look like at the end of the year.
Saying that requires a certain level of trust and belief in the vision and mission of the school. The staff had great relationships and they were able to agree not to worry. But that's not the case in most schools. In fact, they were positive deviants. Maybe they got lucky. There was certainly a risk that they would be criticized (or worse) if they ignored the 83-page plan and then didn't get the results they wanted. But why should they have had to sidestep all of this just to do what's best for our kids? Mr. Craig did know this—they followed the correct processes to put them, and most importantly their kids, in a position to be successful.
Teacher evaluation documents, protocols and rubrics have encouraged the development of common teachers. By common, I mean standardized, generic, uniform. But good teaching is anything but standard. Research on teacher effectiveness has focused on the wrong processes, if one can even call them that. The strategies, techniques and behaviors that are accepted as "research-based" are not even processes in a contemporary sense.
Processes in today's organizations need to be redefined as collaboration and collective inquiry in order to choose, prioritize, implement, assess and adjust actions or practices. The process that needs to be evaluated isn't the way a teacher explains a worksheet or disciplines a student for being disruptive, but the work of the team and individual contribution to the success of the team. We don't need any more research on teacher behaviors that constitute effectiveness other than in terms of their performance and engagement in a professional learning organization.
Teacher evaluation has become a predictable yet dysfunctional ritual: a classroom visit, announced or unannounced, followed by a conference. In the current accountability movement states have attempted to fix this century-old ritual with a rubricated, research-based instrument, and by adding more measures, metrics and infrastructure. These additions give the public, policymakers and educators the impression that we have made progress, when we have not. They have complicated rather than substantively changed the practice.