Why not junk teacher evaluations in favor of more preparation time?
I thought rating teachers would be a hot issue, but that was an understatement. Emails and online comments are still popping up on my screen in reaction to the columns I wrote on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 describing the perils of the District's new teacher evaluation system and the apparent lack of any serious effort towards one in the Washington suburbs. I expect more strenuous comment after next Monday's column, which will explore, for the first time, the secrets of a D.C. teacher's evaluation report.
But in this torrent of interesting feedback on assessing teachers, I have detected rising support among some experts for a radical change of direction that appeals to me.
They point to programs that have had great success giving teachers more time to confer with each other about which methods work best with which students. They are suggesting that we reduce the time spent on evaluating teachers---maybe stop altogether--and give teachers that precious time to compare notes and talk about ways to improve.
The most detailed proposal I have seen is in a recent paper by Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based think tank Education Sector. The title is "Teachers at Work: Improving Teacher Quality Through School Design." Much of it is about a new model called Generation Schools, the brainchild of educators Furman Brown and Jonathan Spear.
They have drastically reorganized the school day at the Brooklyn Generation public high school in New York to give teachers more time for conversation and reflection about their jobs. Their new schedule is very complicated. I am not quite sure I understand it. So let me quote Silva's description in full:
"In the mornings, all teachers teach 90-minute academic classes that average 14 students; afternoons are divided into shorter, larger elective courses and two hours of daily planning. Twice a year, grade-based teaching teams get a four-week break--three weeks to rest and one week to meet, plan and observe colleagues. The breaks are staggered throughout the year, and while one group of teachers is on break, another team of their colleagues steps in to teach their students 'intensive' monthlong literacy courses focused on career and college planning. The result is a school year that is extended to 200 days for students—20 more than the national average—without having to extend work time (and pay) for teachers."
Silva quotes Spear saying they do this under the same budget that other New York City schools of their size have. "So far," she writes, "annual progress reports and school report cards from the New York City Department of Education show impressive scores that surpass those of schools serving similar populations of students."
An email from Ted Haynie, an experienced educational consultant who specializes in helping principals, embraced the idea of extra time for teachers to work together. Then he took it a step further. When he asks principals whether they think teacher performance improves as a result of the standard 30-minute observation, followed by an evaluation interview, "with almost complete unanimity, they respond in the negative."
Haynie said "the real problem is the time spent in this useless process; time that would be better spent in more collegial conversations about improving practice; discussions that share teacher's craft knowledge and explore what we do in the name of teaching and learning and why. There is no meaningful dialogue when a principal and teacher talk across an evaluation form."
That led him to this provocative suggestion: "If we completely suspended the formal evaluation process for two years, the overall quality of classroom instruction would be greatly increased, because the time could be spent actually discussing effective classroom practice in a collegial and more informal manner than what exists today."
At my request, Willis D. Hawley, professor of education and public affairs at the University of Maryland, evaluated the new D.C. teacher assessment system, IMPACT. He was troubled by both the system's heavy use of test scores and its reliance on principals, only partly supported by independent evaluators, to do the 30-minute observations that Haynie's sources found so inadequate. The emphasis, Hawley said, should be on helping teachers improve, "and if they don't improve, they need to be dismissed."
"Teachers who appear to be particularly weak should be provided support and opportunities to learn," he said. "There is no need for a fancy evaluation system to drive professional development. This system can only be aimed at cleaning house and changing the compensation system. It is not hard to tell who the really great teachers are and who the weak ones are."
Silva made one other intriguing point. I knew other countries whose students tend to test better than ours have longer school years. I did not know that despite the greater number of hours those teachers spend in school, they spend FEWER hours doing direct classroom instruction than American teachers do. They spend more time on preparation, planning and grading, often with colleagues who meet, as the teachers at Brooklyn Generation do, in content- or grade-based teams.
"In Korea, for example," Silva writes, "students attend school for more than 200 days per year, and Korean teachers spend roughly 800 hours per year on instruction. Compare this to the United States, where the typical student is in school for 180 days and the typical U.S. teacher spends 1,080 hours on instruction."
I realize that hours set aside for teacher meetings and professional development can be wasted by poor planning, poor leadership and interruptions. Often teacher preparation time is the first thing to be trimmed when budgets are cut. But the time spent on teacher evaluation, at least in the suburban school districts of the Washington area, does not seem to be yielding much either.
I admire the efforts by D.C. officials to do better, but I wonder if they might look at the possibility of turning their program in a new direction, toward more preparation, more shared assessment with other teachers and less evaluation by principals who are convinced it doesn't help their teachers or them.
For more on Education, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education
| November 20, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Elena Silva, Furman Brown, Generation Schools, Jonathan Spear, Ted Haynie, Willis Hawley, teacher evaluation, teacher instructional time, teacher planning time, teacher preparation, teacher teams
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