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5 Lessons for Creating Positive Change Through Coherent Teacher Evaluation

Professional Growth

WHAT ROBLA SCHOOL DISTRICT LEARNED BY UPENDING THEIR TEACHER EVALUATIONS AND EMPOWERING TEACHER LEADERS.

At Robla School District, a small district in Sacramento, California, student performance has historically lagged behind the state average — a pattern common among districts with similar socioeconomics.

Yet there were bright spots: in certain classrooms, students performed at a much higher level.

It quickly became evident to Superintendent Ruben Reyes that these classrooms — what he refers to as “pockets of excellence” — couldn’t be ascribed to differences in the students. It was clear that those classrooms performed at higher levels because of the teachers. Which led Ruben to a logical next question: how could they nurture such excellence in teaching across all classrooms?

As they searched for ways to support teacher growth, they knew that their teacher evaluation process failed to promote the conversations about teaching practice and development that they obviously needed to have.

Armed with this knowledge and led by a design team (more on that later) of administrators and teachers, the leadership at Robla worked together to revamp how they conducted teacher evaluations. They were determined to make the evaluations as useful to teachers as they were to administrators and, from there, create more and more of those pockets of excellence.

As the work has progressed, it’s impacting much more than just how teacher evaluations are performed. Teachers are having deeper conversations about teaching with colleagues and administrators. New pathways for teacher leadership have emerged. Robla isn’t just seeing changes in a few classrooms — they are seeing district-wide change.

Their efforts to improve evaluation aren’t done yet — and may never be — but they’ve learned some vital lessons along the way.

The only wrong answer is, “Because that’s how we’ve always done it.”

Wherever change is enacted, there is bound to be pain — hopefully, pain that leads to growth. Ruben knew he would face stumbling blocks in his new approach to teacher evaluations, but he pushed forward knowing that, without that change and the resulting growing pains, students at Robla would suffer.

“The system we were using was something that was contractually agreed upon and also followed guidelines here in the state of California around the Standards for the Teaching Profession that teachers are required to adhere to,” Ruben told us recently, while appearing on an episode of Frontline Education’s podcast, Field Trip. “And we were finding that the process we were using was not necessarily helpful to the teacher. It wasn’t necessarily an opportunity for the administrator to engage in the in-depth conversation that would really lead to improvement in the teaching practice.”

Fortunately for Ruben, the district embraced change.

“We as a group knew that this was not happening in a way that we wanted it to, and that if we were going to revamp our system, we should involve the people that the system was designed for, which is teachers.”

Even if there’s no roadmap, the first thing is always the first thing.

As Ruben notes, Robla didn’t have a prior path to follow when they started their efforts to change the way they evaluate teachers.

So he did what he needed to — he started a conversation.

“I approached our union leadership and said, ‘Would you be interested in … an evaluation system that would be created collaboratively between administrators and teachers?’”

Armed with little more than a pen and a blank piece of paper, they got to work.

Of course, the reality was that they had already been working toward a solution, even if it took that piece of paper to put an actual name to the process. As Ruben recalls, it really started when he was assigned to observe the classroom of Crystal Saladin, who at the time was teaching first grade.

“I was required to use a specific observational instrument. I was required to stay in her room for a set amount of time … but the tool itself, the form that we were required to use never helped us with that process. We’d veer off the process in order have the kinds of conversations that we needed to have. It was a tool that was required, so it was a hoop that we would always jump through, but we would fill in all the blanks on the form and then we would have the meaningful conversations we needed to have. That helped me feel like I was making contributions to her profession and for her to have a trusted colleague provide her with some input that might give her some insight that would lead to improvements in her classroom.”

Collaboration is key to developing a teacher evaluation model.

What Ruben knew they needed was coherence. They needed a system that set guidelines that all involved could follow. Utilizing author and educational consultant Michael Fullan’s definition of “coherence” as a touchstone, they sought to come to an agreement on what successful teaching within the Robla district should look like.

“If we’re going to talk about what teaching should be in our district with our community and our student population, we should all have a common understanding of what effective teaching looks like. This transformation of our teaching practices started with that little kernel of an idea.”

Another conversation with the then-president of the teachers association and Ruben’s vision began to take shape in the form of a team, hand-picked for their purposes.

The Design Team

Comprised of three administrators and four teachers, including Crystal, the first-grade teacher mentioned above, the design team got to work.

“I was excited from the very beginning,” Crystal told us. “I was actually at a union meeting where the topic was brought up, and there were two other teachers along with myself that both volunteered very quickly and said we were very interested in being a part of that. And then later down the line, we actually added our union president, feeling he was an important member that needed to be on the team.”

With the design team built, the process was underway. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t without its pitfalls. In fact, much of the early going was about being adaptive, about taking issues and finding solutions that would allow the team to move forward again.

A coherent vision remained their guiding principle.

“I feel like we as a group, the design team, had the same goal in mind in that we wanted an opportunity for teachers to grow professionally,” said Crystal. “To be able to have a collaborative situation where they could have someone else have a conversation with them about their teaching. Which is why I was so passionate about it, because not all educators have a grade level partner that they feel like they can collaborate in that way, that they can say, ‘Hey, I want you to watch my teaching and really give me some reflective feedback on what I could improve on or what I could change.’”

You may enjoy this hand-picked content:

Podcast: “See Reality, Get Better” — An interview with Dr. Jim Knight about the use of  classroom video for coaching and self-reflection.

Change involves working with internal and external partners.

Now Crystal is a peer facilitator — a teacher leader who observes and provides feedback to other teachers.

Crystal, due to her background, is uniquely positioned to view many sides of a multi-faceted issue. Incorporating teachers’ specific goals and long-term plans, she guides the evaluation conversation toward a shared understanding of the teacher’s practice.

“I’m not an administrator,” Crystal said. “I am still a teacher, still part of the union, and I’m very careful to never use that word ‘evaluate’ when I’m talking to another teacher, because as a peer, I cannot evaluate. Obviously I have some training and background that allow me to hopefully have some expertise, but I watch them teach and afterwards we sit down and we have a reflective conversation about how the lesson went. ‘What was the level of student engagement? What was the level of student achievement? Were there some things that maybe went wrong along the way or could have been done differently?’”

Crystal’s work lies at the heart of the changes Robla has enacted. One of the biggest changes was asking teachers to focus on longer term goals — not just for that week or that class or even for that year, but for the next decade and beyond.

But it wasn’t just Ruben, Crystal and the design team that brought these changes into being.

They began working with a center at UC Davis called Resourcing Excellence in Education. The REEd Center, as it’s known, developed the Strategic Observation and Reflection – or SOAR – Teaching Frames®. The SOAR Teaching Frames® are research-based, and designed to help teachers, coaches and instructional leaders implement observation and reflection cycles that lead to improvements in practice.

The REEd Center helped facilitate early design team meetings, then guided them forward from there.

“With our work with REEd, we asked teachers to make sure that in their goal-setting, at least one of those goals was centered around using the SOAR Teaching Frames® and exploring the strategies that we have had some professional development on,” Crystal says.

For Crystal, it’s all part of the process, which begins with a conversation.

She talks with teachers about where they are in their development as a teacher, and whether they feel they need more professional development in a specific area. Then they identify resources to help that teacher take the necessary next steps.

When solving problems, it’s important to look beyond what’s immediately around you in order to seek out potential fixes. In the same way, it’s important to know that what worked in one district, like Robla, may work in another — or many others — as well.

Change never ends.

If that sounds ominous, it shouldn’t.

Sure, change can be scary. And too much change, simply for the sake of change, can be outright detrimental. But when changing, evolving and working to keep pace leads you to better yourself and others, there’s no point in limiting what can, and should, change.

Of course, with a district of thousands of students and teachers and support staff and administrators, actually enacting that change can seem daunting.

But, much like how Crystal approaches her work with individual teachers, it’s all about embracing what can be done better.

“Whenever I meet with a practitioner — that’s what we refer to our teachers as when they’re going through the review cycle — whenever I meet with a practitioner, my initial conversation with them is, I want them to understand that I’m not here to tell them that they’re doing something right or wrong,” Crystal shared. “I’m not here to tell them that I was a better classroom teacher than they are. I’m absolutely here to see where they are in the process of becoming a better educator and talk to them about what my suggestions would be for them to move to the next level.”

What Ruben, Crystal and their team have accomplished extends well beyond Robla — consider that you’re reading their story right at this very moment. For Robla, the changes they’ve made do not come with a clear endpoint. Their success is simply another reason to continue pushing forward, continue changing, continue evolving.

But that work also isn’t just for them or even the students of Robla. It never has been, and it never will be.

Cal SetarCalvin Setar

Cal Setar is a writer living in Philadelphia. Previously, he's written about sports, music, television, books, politics and, well, just about everything else.