The Making of Meaningful Evaluations

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2017

A superintendent dives deeply into teacher evaluation by reading every assessment of his staff members completed over a two-year period.

An initiative in your school district costs at least $50,000 per year, places undue stress on administrators and faculty and is likely to bear little impact on student achievement. Your first inclination is to eliminate it without question, saving considerable time, energy and money, right?

That expensive, unproductive initiative is teacher evaluation, and getting rid of it is not an option. What you can do, however, is change the teacher evaluation system so it does make a difference in student learning and outcomes.

Studies show that the most powerful determinant of school success is the quality of its teachers. Over the last decade, in an effort to improve teacher performance and student achievement, most states have enacted legislation to reform how teachers are evaluated, yet nearly all national metrics point to student achievement as stagnant.

In few school districts does the teacher evaluation process represent anything beyond a way for human resources to remove someone from employment in the district.

Inside Evaluation

Teacher evaluation is not broken in most schools, but it needs fixing. Superintendents can make a significant difference in the evaluation process and, in doing so, not only improve instruction but have a positive impact on the overall culture of their schools.

However, we must first look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we really know how well the teacher evaluation system is working. See if you can answer these questions:

  • What does teacher evaluation look like from the principal’s office? From the teacher’s classroom?
  • Does evaluation make a difference in each teacher’s professional growth?
  • How do you know?
  • Whom do you hold accountable?
Vantage Points

Our role in evaluation begins with seeing the teacher evaluation process in our districts from the vantage point of teachers and principals so we can better contribute to its overall success.

Here are five things we can do as superintendents to improve the teacher evaluation process.

No. 1: Read the evaluations.

In my second year as a superintendent, I spent 90 hours of winter break reading every line of every evaluation of 110 teachers completed in my northwest Illinois district of 1,700 students during the previous two years. In doing so, I learned more about my principals and teachers than I had learned during my previous 18 months in the district.

I found gaps in performance and perception, evaluation themes, some instances of laudable practice and some practices that made me cringe. For example, I realized that most of my principals — and probably most of yours — have a “go-to” comment or suggestion for improvement that they use repeatedly in their evaluations. It’s typically vague, such as increase student engagement or utilize student feedback and choice, and it does not drive teacher improvement. Remember, if teachers knew how to do those things, they probably would be doing them already.

If you don’t have 90 hours to dig deeply into evaluations, hire someone to analyze them and provide you with feedback about evaluation practices that need improvement. Most importantly, knowing the quality of the principals’ evaluations will give you a better platform from which to coach them toward improved performance.

No. 2: Observe the evaluations.

The best professional advice I ever received came from my superintendent who observed me as a principal while evaluating a teacher in the classroom. He told me afterward that everything I said was correct, but I talked to the teachers, not for them. I tried to fix them, not help them grow.

My career in school administration was changed forever as a result of that feedback that he could give me only because he took the time to observe me evaluating a teacher.

Observe and evaluate your principals evaluating their teachers. If you do not model the idea that evaluation is a continuous and important process centered on growth, it is impossible to convince your principals as such. During the evaluation process, take time to sit in on some pre-conferences, observations and post-observations between your principals and their teachers. This time commitment alone demonstrates your investment in the process and in the growth of both principals and teachers.

More tangibly, this firsthand experience provides insight that will help you better coach your principals, gives a glimpse of life in the trenches and demonstrates to your teachers you are not disconnected from their reality, you are interested in their challenges and you want to help them grow professionally.

No. 3: Guide the feedback.

If you sat down today and read the comments your principals provide to your teachers in their evaluations, I guarantee you would struggle to find suggestions for improvement that sound like suggestions for improvement.

A typical comment is filled with flowery language and uses the “sandwich” technique: compliment, vaguely worded suggestion, compliment. One may read this way: “I really appreciate how hard you are working at increasing the rigor of your questions. I still see room for growth in this area as less than 10 percent of the questions asked were higher order in nature. I am not worried about this, however, as I am sure you will continue to work on it.” This methodology benefits one person — the evaluator.

Without helpful comments to guide them, teachers can’t improve their performance. One strategy you might share with your principals to raise the usefulness of their comments is the NERD methodology. That means ensuring each written comment includes these elements:

NUGGET: The important information you actually want to convey. The observed lesson had a lack of questions promoting critical thinking.

EVIDENCE: The data to support the nugget. Of 16 questions asked during the observed portion of the lesson, only two were above level 2 on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

RELEVANCE: A connection to something bigger, such as personal goals, school improvement goals, a recent professional development offering, etc. Failure to ask questions promoting critical thought likely prohibits meaningful engagement in the lesson as described in the engagement framework introduced in October.

DONE: Stop writing! No need to say more.

Consider using this strategy when you evaluate your principals as well.

No. 4: Be accountable.

We all can talk a great game when it comes to instructional leadership, but what does it say about someone’s instructional leadership when a supervised teacher has stayed in the same overall evaluation rating band for years while actually regressing in several areas? To me, it clearly means the principal is not deeply invested in the growth of that teacher or in the overall growth of the staff members as individuals.

Our principals may never have looked at individual teacher growth as part of their key responsibilities. As instructional leaders, it is our job to ensure they see their responsibilities in that light. Just as it is easy for a principal to lecture a teacher on “owning” student growth, they must be encouraged to view their own role with the teachers they serve in that light.

No. 5: Drive the professional development

The type of instructional support our teachers need is informed by a comprehensive examination of evaluation data. However, most schools and districts ignore these data when planning professional development in favor of chasing a new initiative or bringing in a trendy speaker. To truly have a systematic approach to improvement, we need to use evaluation data to drive professional learning.

Most districts place teachers with “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement” ratings on a plan for growth and ignore proficient teachers whose further growth also would benefit students. For those school districts seeking to be great, the personalization of professional development for every single teacher is the most significant investment you can make in growing your most important resource — your personnel.

Bottom Line

If, like me, you believe that some aspect of the evaluation process must change for the outcomes of the process to change, it’s time to look in the mirror. We will not get anything different by using the same processes and exhibiting the same behaviors.

Our path to improvement means focusing on our performance and behavior and that of those we serve. As superintendents, we must stay vigilant, accountable and committed to making this process work better for our schools.