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Better Teaching Through Evaluations
Does your district hone teaching practice through evaluation-informed professional learning?
The whirlwind 18 months since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law have brought no small amount of buzz. Much of it concerns teacher evaluations — specifically because with ESSA, the federal government handed a fair amount of power back to the states in determining how to conduct them.
That’s not to say that ESSA isn’t concerned with teacher evaluations. The new approach gives states more flexibility in how evaluations are conducted, but the goal is clear: a continuous cycle of growth for every educator, where evaluations inform professional learning to address each teacher’s individual needs.
This idea isn’t new. For years, educators have viewed evaluations and observations as valuable tools to improve teaching practice, rather than grade performance. Principals, observers and instructional leaders recognize the value of observations to identify areas of strength and need for professional learning opportunities.
How’s it working?
MDRC: A Survey of Five Districts
“Using Evaluation Systems for Teacher Improvement” is a brief from MDRC that attempts to answer this question. (It’s not long, but this article by Dian Schaffhauser at THE Journal first called our attention to the study and is a great summary to go along with your morning bagel.)
In the brief, Rachel Rosen and Leigh M. Parise examine data from a survey in which they asked principals and secondary school teachers in five school districts about evaluations and professional development. Right from the start, what’s striking is the 86% response rate. Even more impressive, among principals that number jumped to 93%. This is clearly an issue educators care about.
Principal vs. Teacher Perceptions
One of the interesting findings was the difference between principals’ perceptions, and teachers’. While 74% of principals said that evaluations had a moderate to large influence on teachers’ professional development, only 36% of teachers echoed that. Rosen and Parise write, “This disparity suggests that there is room to improve communication regarding professional development choices and assignments, and to build teachers’ engagement with those choices and assignments.”
Additional survey responses revealed the vast majority of principals said they received enough (or too much) support in using their district’s evaluation system and using the evaluation process to support improvements in teaching practice. Yet those numbers fell when it came to district support in identifying and providing professional development to meet teachers’ needs.
The report goes on to say that “only small majorities of teachers” found the professional development suggestions they received to be useful, and one in five said observations never led to useful suggestions for PD.
Other Surveys with Similar Results
Rosen and Parise acknowledge that given the relatively small sample size, the results may not be representative of districts nationally. But they do support the findings from a 2016 survey Frontline Education conducted of over 350 principals across the country. Asked whether teacher evaluations were effective at helping improve teaching practice, fewer than half could confidently say “Yes.”
In a separate survey, Frontline asked educators about their goals for evaluations and professional learning in 2016-2017. 73% ranked “making evaluations more impactful in improving teaching in my district” as either “High Priority” or “Essential Priority” — more, even, than the number who said they wanted to make evaluations more efficient for observers.
Prescription: Professional Development for Principals
So what’s the answer? According to Rosen and Parise, more education for school leaders. They note that states may use up to 3% of their Title II funding to support principals’ professional development, and suggest prioritizing those efforts.
“Specifically, districts could provide additional assistance to school leaders to ensure that evaluations yield concrete suggestions for how teachers can improve their practice. In addition, districts should ensure that school leaders are well equipped to identify areas where teachers can grow, and are prepared to connect teachers with learning opportunities that are appropriate to their needs.”
You can read the full report MCRC report online. And to compare how your district’s evaluations impact teaching compared with other LEAs, take this 1-minute poll and get instant results.
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