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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 08/17/2010

The best kind of teacher evaluation

By Valerie Strauss

The Los Angeles Times on Sunday published a massive story that rocked the education world by using student test scores to evaluate more than 6,000 teachers and then to declare which teachers are effective and who should be shown the door. Any regular reader of my blog will know that I take a dim view of any teacher evaluation scheme that uses test scores as a sole measure.

Here is a piece on real teacher evaluation by Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. Ferlazzo writes a popular blog for teachers and is the author of two books, Building Parent Engagement In Schools and English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work.

He is also a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, a network of teacher leaders dedicated to student success and the transformation of teaching into a true profession. It is a national initiative of the Center for Teaching Quality.

By Larry Ferlazzo
What is the best way for teachers to be evaluated?

A “loaded” question, indeed. Evaluating someone’s performance is always tricky. It has become even more so in education where public discussions of new forms of teacher evaluations are often introduced in the context of developing a tool to fire educators.

Whether it is New York City Mayor Bloomberg ordering state test scores to be included in teacher evaluations so (as local newspapers described it) they can be used “ to decide which teachers should stay and which should go,” or D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee exaggerating the number of teachers the District recently fired because of poor evaluations, the idea of revising teacher evaluation systems understandably raises a red flag for many teachers.

As an alternative to evaluation plans that would be done “to” teachers, let me share the ways evaluations are being done “with” me. The components of this positive approach to evaluation have dramatically improved my professional practice at Luther Burbank High School where I teach. LBHS is the largest inner-city high school in Sacramento CA, and over half of our students are English Language Learners.

I’m observed by instructionally savvy supervisors who know me.

At our school, I am regularly observed by trained administrators who know our school, our students and me — and whose judgment and skills I, in turn, respect. I know they are genuinely concerned about my professional development. They understand that helping me improve my skills is the best thing they can do to help our students. Our administrators typically come by for two 30-minute formal observations each school year, and numerous short “drop-ins.” While I’m very confident in my ability as a teacher, these purposeful visits have produced detailed and helpful feedback that has made me an even better educator.

My supervisors recognize it’s better to be “data-informed” than “data-driven.”

Many reformers call for “data-driven” schools. At LBHS, Principal Ted Appel is a strong believer in being “data-informed” instead. He understands the value of data but recognizes that schools that are “data-driven” might make decisions like keeping students who are “borderline” between algebra and a higher level of math in the algebra classroom so that they do well on the algebra state test instead of being more challenged.

Or, in English, teachers in data-driven schools might focus a lot of time and energy on teaching a “strand” that is heavily represented on the state tests — even though that obsessive focus might take away from other instruction that can help the student become a life-long reader. Quality school leaders like Appel reject these practices. Given the choice between institutional self-interest and doing what’s best for students, they will always choose the latter and expect teachers to do the same.

In schools that are data-informed, test results are just one more piece of information that can be helpful in determining future directions. There is recognition that, as a recent commission study by the U.S. Department of Education reported that “more than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under control of the teacher.”

When test results for my students a year ago were poor (after several years of much higher scores), Ted Appel and other administrators were aware that my students at that time faced an unusual number of challenges. There were no threats (implicit or explicit) – only support – along with the usual annual observations of my teaching. This past year, with a new group of students and no major instructional changes on my part, students made substantial test gains.

We make sure there are multiple types of data.

At our school, we recognize that real life is not full of questions that provide multiple choice answers. Instead, a priority is made to have teachers regularly give “performance-based assessments” where students have to construct their own responses by writing essays or taking a “cloze test” where participants are asked to replace missing words and demonstrate understanding of context and vocabulary. Teachers are given time to create common assessments as a group, to score them as a group, and to compare and discuss the results as a group – all in the spirit of being informed but not suppressed by data.

I hear regular feedback from students, colleagues and parents.

In my classroom, I regularly have students complete anonymous evaluations of the class and of my teaching. The feedback I receive is another piece of data that can help me determine the effectiveness of my instruction and make positive changes.

Colleagues also observe my classes. Our large school is divided into seven small learning communities (SLCs). In each community, 300 students stay with the same group of 20 teachers from ninth through 12th grade. The teachers in my SLC periodically observe one another (purely voluntary, informal, and during our free periods), using a short checklist of questions we created ourselves:

Are all students engaged? If so, how? If not, why? Do you feel the expectations of the class are too much or not enough? Is the work being given higher order thinking or just task work (book work)? I have also had colleagues who observed my class post questions on the Web for my students about my teaching. You can see an example here.

In schools, another very key “interested party” is parents. Often when I speak with parents – either over the phone, during home visits, parent-teacher conferences, or open houses -- I ask about what their students say about our class, good and bad. I value this feedback, and it becomes another important element in my constant quest to stay data-informed.

Self-Reflection

In my classroom, I work hard at helping my students develop their capacity for self-reflection. Without this discipline, they can fall into the trap of living their lives by a formula and make the same mistakes over and over again. They can learn the facts but miss the opportunity to develop an understanding.

The same holds true for teachers. Well-known education researcher Robert Marzano emphasizes the importance of self-reflection in any kind of effective teacher assessment. There are obviously many ways to implement this reflective process both formally and informally with colleagues and supervisors. I also write about teaching in my blog and pay attention to the feedback I receive from readers.

One simple question I regularly ask myself is one suggested by Marvin Marshall, a noted writer on positive classroom management strategies. He recommends that teachers ask: If I were a student, would I want me as a teacher?

If yes, list the reasons. If no, list the reasons.

I do not pretend to know how all these elements could be incorporated into a formal teacher evaluation process. But they do point toward a more productive approach to evaluating and strengthening the quality of teaching in America’s classrooms.

They underscore the importance of providing resources so well-prepared administrators have more time to observe teachers – of making sure teachers have regular opportunities to observe each other and give constructive feedback – of giving educators common time to prepare and evaluate assessments that show higher-level thinking skills – of making it possible for all school staff to engage more with parents. These are the ways we can help teachers become the best that they can be.

A culture of collegial professional practice that incorporates these kinds of activities is more likely to make me a better teacher than somebody else’s imposed, arbitrary, and punitive process ever will.

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By Valerie Strauss  | August 17, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  factors in teacher evaluation, how to evaluate teachers, la times story and teachers, larry ferlazzo, los angeles times story, multiple measures in evaluation, teacher evaluation  
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Comments

This evaluation system sounds great. But- does it work? Does it do a good job of getting poor teachers to either improve or leave?

Posted by: bubba777 | August 17, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Self-Reflection

In my classroom, I work hard at helping my students develop their capacity for self-reflection. Without this discipline, they can fall into the trap of living their lives by a formula and make the same mistakes over and over again.
______________

Excellent, well thought-out and substantive article on this subject.

Artists/Art teachers go through the "self-reflection" process their entire schooling and careers by means of the critique, for many of the reasons cited here in addition to others.

During a critique, peers and instructor look at everyone's work and offer constructive comments that highlight both strengths and weaknesses in the work presented. The originator of the work is then asked to reflect on what has been said and than respond to the feedback. The process sharpens one's visual and analytical processing, and generally new insights come into play.

In the beginning, a critique may be very intimidating, and has to be carefully handled by the facilitator. Once the critique becomes a regular practice, however, the participant becomes much more objective, appreciative of the comments, and usually works harder to achieve better results.

The above description is very brief, but I hope it underscores what Larry Ferlazzo is getting at when he writes about the importance of self-reflection.

We can all get too close to the forest to see the trees.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 17, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Here’s an excerpt from a great critique of the LA Times article:

“They [LA Times reporters] have, in fact, violated two fundamental principles of psychometrics: never use a test designed to measure one thing (e.g., student achievement) to measure something it was not designed to measure (e.g., teacher effectiveness), and never use a single test score or measurement type to draw definitive conclusions (particularly not in the social sciences). Further, they have made the fundamental error of assuming that correlation (Teacher A's kids scores are higher than Teacher B's scores) equates with causation (Scores rose primarily BECAUSE of the superior teaching skills and methods of Teacher A).

In fact, the above-cited article is so fraught with error and leaps of logic (and bad faith) as to be utterly, irredeemably worthless, not unlike the test scores upon which its false (and probably libelous) conclusions are based.”

To read the whole thing, click here:
http://rationalmathed.blogspot.com/2010/08/la-times-cracks-out-of-turn-when-it.html

Posted by: efavorite | August 17, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

A reader asked:

"This evaluation system sounds great. But- does it work? Does it do a good job of getting poor teachers to either improve or leave?"

Teaching is demanding intellectually, physically, and emotionally, and doing it badly does not make it easier, it makes it much harder. If a teacher cannot reply affirmatively to the question "If I were a student would I want to be in this class?" he will probably be among the large number of teachers chose to exit the classroom in their first five years.

The reader's question is valid, but it might be more important to ask:

"Does the evaluation system do a good job of getting good teaches to continually improve their practice and stay?"

Posted by: susangraham | August 17, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

This evaluation system sounds great. But- does it work? Does it do a good job of getting poor teachers to either improve or leave?

Posted by: bubba777 | August 17, 2010 8:52 AM
________________________
The system described in this article sounds very much like PAR which is used in Montgomery County. When teachers are found to be having difficulty in the classroom, their weaknesses are identified and they are assigned a consulting teacher in their content area to provide mentoring and feedback. If the teacher is found not to improve then they are fired though typically most in this situation either retire or resign before getting to that point.

I description of PAR as it is used in MCPS and other districts can be found here:
http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt/par/

Posted by: musiclady | August 17, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Well done. That is the kind of comprehensive, *respectful* evaluation system that schools need.

@Bubba777: People are motivated and able to do their best when they feel respected and supported, because then they're free to focus on the tasks at hand, not their own negative feelings. Fear and humiliation are not effective tools for generating excellent performance (though they're great for enforcing mediocrity). Why do you assume that something has to be harsh in order to be effective?

Posted by: TeacherSabrina | August 17, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Well done, Larry - and some great follow up comments as well!

Here in California, one additional resource on teacher evaluation is a policy report researched and written by teachers (including me), and put out by Accomplished California Teachers (ACT).

Find out more at
http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com

Our findings are very much in line with the ideas Larry puts forth in this piece. Larry is an ACT member, one we're particularly proud to be associated with, and we're glad that the Post saw fit to provide him with this space.

Posted by: DavidBCohen | August 17, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to your newspaper for inviting Mr Ferlazzo to post. I'm a reader of his blog and a follower of his Tritter stream. I admire his pragmatic, yet supportive approach to students. In this case, he applies the same perspective to supporting teachers while holding them accountable.

I'm a big fan of self reflection as well. I recently developed a taxonomy of reflection for students, teachers, and principals. It includes guiding questions for each. You can find it on my blog at http://bit.ly/8cLsBX

Posted by: peterpappas | August 18, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I applaud an evaluation system whereby the teacher is included. In lots of corporations in America, workers asked to self-assess on their performance. I think that in education, we (myself included, as an educator) must remove our ego from the equation. Through the lesson study process that I participated in, I was able to remove my own ego and take in critique about my teaching. Lesson study also takes the approach that outside observation is not a commentary on the teacher or teaching style but on the students. Therefore all comments and observation are about what the students are learning or not learning. This approach is much more inclusive and it is much more helpful to the teacher. If educators in America are serious about honing their craft, we should really look at lesson study and how teachers develop their craft in Japan.

Posted by: ndsalvadoreno | August 18, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

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