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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

By Jay Mathews  | 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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Next: Dan Goldfarb's evaluation--D.C. schools and Goldfarb respond


I think you--and Haynie--hit the nail on the head. Evaluation systems that do not accompany efforts to create the conditions for excellent practice tend to focus more on crime and punishment than actual improvement. Silva's point about actual instructional hours vs. has been long established. Linda Darling-Hammond has been making the point for years, but policymakers have often been deaf to its implications.

For an example of another school that has implemented something similar to what Silva describes, take another look at Viers Mill Elementary in Silver Srping. Viers Mill has made stunning strides in the past 6 years. Most of its students live in poverty, almost half are still learning English, and almost all are proficient in state tests.

I visited the school a few weeks ago and was thoroughly impressed by the number and depth of opportunities staff members have to collaborate. The school has gone from struggling to great in about 6 years without getting many new staff. Instead, the school gave existing staff very structured opportunities to work together, learn from each other and focus on individual students' needs.

Posted by: ClausvonZastrow | November 20, 2009 7:18 AM | Report abuse

This is the best proposal to boost student achievement that I have ever seen. I am sad to say that I am quite surprised that someone has even tried this in today's climate of so called accountability.

The teacher evaluation process today does nothing to improve teaching. Most principals are busy managing the schools. The evaluations are very time consuming. There are "look-fors" that miss the forest for the trees. Teachers should be evaluated in some way that includes student performance, but, how can we prevent the assigning of lower performing students to less popular teachers? Also, shouldn't students be held responsible for their own learning? I tell my children, you are to do your work in school. I do not blame the teacher if my child doesn't do his homework or doesn't study for a test. I do suggest that it is up to the teacher to motivate my child to learn. My child has a job to do and that is to go to school. The teacher should help him and tell him what to do, but I don't expect that every teacher will engage my child. I do know that the schools have very little that they can do for students who constantly disrupt and I am disgusted with our society for not backing teachers up when it comes to discipline. Kids should not be allowed to disrupt other kids' learning. There should be a cool off area for the disruptive kid, outside the classroom. The teacher shouldn't be penalized for sending the student there and the student should make up the work they missed on their own time.

I also think we need to look at how much direct instruction a student can take in one day. Sometimes people need time to process information and work on their own. The model right now is that students will "be able to.." do something at the end of every class period. I don't think learning always works that way. Not everything is broken down into little pieces.

The teachers definitely need more planning time.

I am heartened by the fact that this school in Brooklyn is doing this. It seems to me that the rest of educational "reform" movement consists of demonizing teachers and giving them more paperwork in an effort to make them accountable. I know there are a few bad teachers in the world, but the majority of teachers are working very hard in very difficult conditions and it seems they are constantly having to defend everything they do.

This is the first time in a long time that I have read about an educational reform that actually would reform something. Thanks for writing about it.

How many of the critics tell their own children to be respectful in the classroom?
How many of the critics have taught 32 fourth graders to read/write etc.?

Posted by: celestun100 | November 20, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Please, folks, let's stop making false choices. Someone who has observed good and weak teachers for years almost certainly has the ability to make useful suggestions, especially to newer teachers, even b ased on only 30 minutes of classroom observation. Of course, it would help if that observation were more casual rather than scheduled months in advance and potentially career threatening.

And collaborating with other teachers on lesson plans and on how to reach particular students is also likely to be extremely useful. And with a nod to Jay, I might add that when an experienced teacher/coordinator leads the collaboration (as is done on IB PYP schools), the results are likely to be even better.

But these are not alternatives -- they are complementary.

Posted by: mct210 | November 20, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Celestun100: Thank you, thank you for some of the best comments I've read in a long time! Students are responsible for their own learning. (I used to tell one of my students - repeatedly - "I can help you with this, but I can not open your head and pour the knowledge in! You have to do your part, too.") I signed up to teach your child English, not to baby-sit or raise him. Obviously, there are teachers with stronger or weaker classroom management skills, and I'm not suggesting that those aren't important (although, believe it or not, they also aren't taught in education programs) - but by and large, we need to restore some responsibility to the parent and child, and our society is being greatly hurt by schools' willingness to take on the responsibility themselves.

Posted by: LadybugLa | November 20, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

"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."

The importance of this fact when comparing teachers in other countries to teachers in U.S. schools cannot be emphasized enough. The number of hours U.S. teachers spend on their feet, teaching and struggling with serious problems, for which they are blamed rather than receiving assistance, often reaches a level of abuse that would be unacceptable in any other profession. It's a big reason why so many teachers burn out, even the young ones. Teachers in this country are run ragged by incompetent systems and then vilified when they are too exhausted to perform at their best. In countries where teachers are respected, the people who run things understand what an important resource teachers are, and treat them accordingly.

This isn't new information. It's been floating around for years. It seems like it is one factor a reporter would want to check out when comparing U.S. schools to foreign schools with higher performing students.

Posted by: aed3 | November 20, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Those interested in public education might be interested in the following.

"If we are to prevent the achievement gap and develop a cradle-to-career educational pipeline, early learning programs are going to have to be better integrated with the K-12 system," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday at a convention of the nation's largest early childhood organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Child's play spurs serious debate
Educators argue over best use of time for pre-schoolers
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009; 12:27 PM
After almost 8 years of NCLB the government is still obsessed with "test them until they drop" and "teach to the test", and it is no surprise that the government intends to bring these policies to the preschool.

The insane when confronted with their ideas that do not appear to work expand the field. The idea of control of the insane individual by aliens when faced with reality is expanded to alien control of the entire world.

It appears that there is a great deal in common with the insane and government fixated on ideas that have been proved to not work.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 20, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the points raised in this column, the opinions expressed, and the evidence cited...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! Bingo! Thank you!

Posted by: DavidBCohen | November 20, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Hate to bicker on otherwise solid points, but I want to know where this 1,080 hours figure comes from. I'm a teacher, and spend about 810 hours on instruction in a school year.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 20, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

This is a worthy commentary. As with all reforms though it's important to keep an eye on the ball: Paradoxically reformers call to give teachers more control and authority even as they impose at least one new commandment upon them.

Our education system continues to be a top down model with little room for innovation. If the system were freed from the controlling bureaucrats while individual school results were published and made know to parents and students, the change would be magical.

Posted by: socks2 | November 20, 2009 7:17 PM | Report abuse

I teach AP English in Korea,and I am not sure what the reference to Korea signifies. Other information seems to be a copy of the Leson Study method popularized in Japan.

Posted by: ericpollock | November 21, 2009 5:32 AM | Report abuse

I could not agree with this more. It's no coincidence that when teachers gather informally the conversations always, always drift towards student behavior and effort in the classroom, and what works/doesn't work in the classroom. I already spend the majority of my time planning, assessing student work, and those 'in the bar' hours reflecting upon what I did right or wrong. These 'drive-by' observations rarely help unless they're done by peers.
I've become a champion of videos in all classrooms; not to monitor student behavior but for teachers to evaluate themselves.

Posted by: pdfordiii | November 21, 2009 7:52 AM | Report abuse

celestun100 said:

"I do not blame the teacher if my child doesn't do his homework or doesn't study for a test. I do suggest that it is up to the teacher to motivate my child to learn. My child has a job to do and that is to go to school."

Interesting to hear that from a parent, because in DCPS at least, teachers are held accountable when students don't do their homework. At my school, teachers are harassed if we give "too many" Ds or Fs. "Too many" as arbitrarily defined by administration.

ALL the fallout is on the teachers for what we didn't do, even if we have records of calls home, lunch interventions (I haven't eaten lunch during my lunch break yet this year), opportunities for quiz correction, remediation, etc. etc. There is absolutely NO consequence for the children. There is no indication that they are responsible for their own learning. None.

So what happens? Teachers are bullied into inflating grades because we don't have time to deal with more BS from the administration. More importantly and even more upsetting is what the kids learn- that they don't have to do anything, they'll just slide by because their teachers don't have the time/energy to plan and prep engaging lessons and be harassed by the administration.

How is this having high standards for kids?

What kind of message does this send to the kids?

(For the record, I am all for asking what went wrong when a child is failing, but at least a part of the responsibility should be the student's- right now there is NONE.)

Posted by: uva007 | November 21, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Yes! Thank you! At my school most teachers have begun using our planning periods for this very purpose- and it's been MUCH more helpful than either post-IMPACT observation conference I've had.

I've also said for a long time that new teacher should receive double the prep time their first year. Instead in education, we eat our young, giving them the worst schedules, classrooms, and classes.

And then we wonder why so many promising teachers leave the profession...

Posted by: uva007 | November 21, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

I am so glad to see so many people saying some of the blame has to fall on students and parents. I am a teacher in Fairfax County and this is a huge problem we deal with. We are blamed when students do not pass or are not doing what they should be. No blame is on them. How is it our fault if they do not do homework? We don't live with them. That is where parent involvement comes in.

If we could have some uninterrupted planning time, without all the meetings, conferences, duties, etc., many of us will be able to become more effective.

Posted by: EyeTeachMath | November 21, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse


Please do an investigative piece on teachers in other countries. Specifically, take a close look at the daily/monthly/yearly work cycle of teachers in countries that turn out the highest performing students. Find out what kind of education and preparation they are expected to have before they become teachers. Find out what they are paid, what kinds of resources are available to them, whether they spend personal money on classroom materials, and how many years they typically last in their profession.

Find out how school administrators function. Are they expected to have many years of teaching experience before being put in charge of a school? Are they put in place to boss people around, or are they there to support and collaborate with teachers? Do they listen to advice from the teachers who work for them, or are they allowed to act as petty despots?

Find out what families and students are expected to contribute to the academic success.

This would make a very interesting series of articles.

Posted by: aed3 | November 21, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse


If you want any information on Korea, let me know at

I have been teaching AP English here for 16 years. I was also in Japan when the Look Study Method was popular and other countries started to copy their system and call it other things.

Though I used to teach 9 classes a day for years, I now teach less but it includes Saturday.

Posted by: ericpollock | November 21, 2009 11:27 PM | Report abuse

Testing, my post yesterday morning did not appear.

Posted by: silverstarent2003 | November 22, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

good posts. I will be sharing with our correspondents in Asia.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 22, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Great posts and so unfortunate that DCPS teachers would be castigated for implying that students and parents play a critical role in education that teachers cannot fulfill.

Good idea to study the Asian model, but please keep in mind that Asian immigrants in the US tend to do very well in US schools, despite the differences between the educational systems they have been exposed to. It would be a huge lapse in critical thinking to assume that the system alone, and not also something about the students and their parents, is responsible for high achievement.

Posted by: efavorite | November 23, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Why is it unfortunate for whiny teachers who constantly pass the buck onto minor students- I've heard these teachers complain about KINDERGARTEN students! - to finally be asked to shoulder 100% of the responsibility for what happens in their classrooms? Why is accepting personal responsibility important for parents paying taxes but not teachers who get paid to teach? Really, why?

Posted by: bbcrock | November 23, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

uva007 said: "I've also said for a long time that new teacher should receive double the prep time their first year. Instead in education, we eat our young, giving them the worst schedules, classrooms, and classes."

I heartily agree. As a relatively new teacher several years ago, working in a low-income California public school, I was assigned three different subjects (none of which I'd taught before). Other new teachers were given two, three or even four different subjects to teach (for the first time), with only one prep period. It was exhausting! I literally worked 12 hours days (7am to 7pm, Monday through Friday) trying to keep up with all the preparations. Older teachers with more experience were assigned one or sometimes two subjects (e.g., 6 periods of history, or 3 periods of history and 3 periods of English).

It's a peculiarity of teaching that the newest members of the profession are given the most difficult and complicated assignments. In my current profession as a lawyer, my experience was almost precisely the opposite. I was gradually eased into my area of practice, with mentoring and increasing responsibilities as my experience grew.

Posted by: AttorneyDC | November 25, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

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