October 26, 2009

Preemptive Support for Evaluations

Justin Katz

Is it too cynical to be suspicious of union enthusiasm to develop evaluation standards for teachers?

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals has received a $200,000 national grant to develop a much more demanding method of evaluating and mentoring new teachers. The union will work closely with four urban school districts: Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.

"The union is tired of being portrayed as a protector of bad teachers," said union president Marcia Reback. "We have no interest in having incompetent teachers in our classrooms. We want to have good, rigorous, substantial evaluations."...

The peer-evaluation system would work as follows: a consulting teacher would observe, evaluate and mentor between 8 and 10 novice teachers over the course of a year. In the spring, the consulting teacher would recommend whether the new teacher should be awarded an additional contract. A board comprising administrators and union representatives would make its recommendation to the superintendent, who, in turn, would offer advice to the local school committee.

So a group of union reps and administrators (often previous members of the union) translate a union member's review of another union member to the superintendent, who brings it to the elected representatives on the school committee. Sounds like an attempt to derail evaluations that would involve more stakeholders, such as students, parents, and taxpayers, at a more fundamental level.

It always rankles, by the way, to hear union executives talk about "our classrooms." Perhaps public clarification of ownership is in order.

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I think our classroom was a reference to the workplace just like someone might say our garage or our wharehouse. Would you rather the teachers show no sense of ownership in the job and the workplace. Since the writer does not like this idea I am sure he has a better one already thought out that he is willing to share.

Posted by: Erin fo bragh at October 26, 2009 2:02 PM

Having a paid "consulting teacher" evaluate new teachers is nonsense. Teachers should be evaluated by their supervisors,just like the rest of America. Were you ever evaluated by a hired outside "peer" or by the person who hired you?

Posted by: Bob W at October 26, 2009 2:40 PM

In the past, teachers have always been evaluated by their administrators. However, administrators are not necessarily the people who hire teachers (unless the school is a charter school, site-based managed school, or private school). I personally would like to see more principal involvement in hiring and I do believe that has changed somewhat over the past few years, but typically teachers are hired by a district-level team. I worked for 8.5 years in Providence as a classroom teacher, literacy coach, and ELL specialist. Each time I was interviewed by a team and hired by that team. For the literacy coach and ELL specialist positions, the team included my direct supervisor (principal and director of ESL/bilingual education). For the classroom teacher position, I was interviewed by a district team that consisted of mainly special education administrators at the central office level. (The position was bilingual special education self-contained teacher.) However, my evaluations were always done by my direct supervisor. While working as a classroom teacher, this was the assistant principal who was in charge of special education. He observed in my class three times and we met both before and after the lesson that he observed (to discuss the lesson plan beforehand and to debrief and reflect upon his observations after he observed). I felt like it was a fair evaluation process and I always scored high on the rubric. This enabled me to enjoy later opportunities such as working as a member of the Lead Team (running professional development for peers at the school) and my coaching and specialist positions. In an indirect way, it led to my current opportunity and position (a teaching fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh where I am working on my doctorate). I felt that I was appropriately supported and rewarded for a job well done. However, the evaluations did not have "teeth", so to speak, when it came to those who did poorly. Very few teachers who had low scores were ever fired. People jokingly would say that in order to be fired in Providence, you had to kill a child. Perhaps the process was not that extreme but it was close. You pretty much had to get convicted of a crime that would disqualify you from teaching, injure a child, or just stop showing up to work. (On the last count, that is even a little "iffy"; I have witnessed some woeful abuses of sick leave.) Thus I think that some change must clearly take place so that evaluations actually mean something. I would not object to a team approach. Doing good research requires triangulation of data - i.e., gathering data from multiple sources and then assessing that data in the decision-making process. Justin recommends that some people outside the union (and education in general) should be involved. This is not a bad idea. I would support a team that includes, for example, a current or recently retired teacher, a parent or other community member, an administrator, and an outside education professional (e.g., an education professor or an independent education consultant). I think that a protocol should be well-developed by multiple stakeholders (including people from all of the previously mentioned categories) and evaluation team members should be extensively trained to conduct the evaluations. These teams could be trained in a state protocol at the state level. I would highly recommend that the administrator be the school principal because, as Bob mentions, the direct supervisor needs to be part of the process. The evaluation should be an ongoing process that offers recommendations for improvement throughout the first year and then, at the end of the year, leads to a decision regarding continued employment. The decision would be final. To reduce costs for such an evaluation, I would not make the team positions paid positions but volunteer. The teacher member could be earning credits towards recertification. For the administrator, this would be part of his/her regular job. The parent/community member could earn CEUs and many independent consultants and university-level educators actually do volunteer on different committees already. This is something that one might add to his/her curriculum vita and it could lead to establishing a relationship with school districts so that the person could later do research in that district or offer paid professional development services. I think all would benefit without adding additional costs to the state. Such a process would reduce political favoritism and nepotism, offer a fair procedure for teachers to demonstrate improvement and growth, and would allow for those who are not able to succeed on the job to be identified early and counseled out of the profession. Let's face it - not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. I also think that the these evaluations should take place every 3 years or so for ALL teachers so that veteran teachers are kept on their toes and don't settle into an attitude of complacency. If properly structured, teachers would actually welcome the evaluation process as an opportunity to work on developing mastery in the field. Top teachers might be identified for special professional development and coaching opportunities as well. This whole process would take some time to develop, but in the long run, everyone would benefit - especially the students and families.

Posted by: Tabetha at October 26, 2009 4:23 PM

I think part of the difficulty everyone is having here is conceptualizing the idea of "firing a teacher". Think about it. Except for sort of perverse sexual activity, who has ever heard of a teacher being fired?

I wonder if fond memories of a "favorite teacher" are getting in way? You forget the ones that were out right bums, if you even understood that at the time. Perhaps you thought it was your own fault because the material seemed difficult.

For all of that, this is not an art show, I don't see "peer review" having a place in it. The decision is not subjective, the teachers meet an agreed standard, or they do not. I would like to say that if we base it on student performance, there must be allowances. Can the performance of "inner city" kids, with basically no home life, be held to the same standards as suburban kids with supportive families? How about a teacher whose entire class views English as a "second language"?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 26, 2009 5:04 PM


Of course teachers should feel invested in "their classrooms." The teachers are not the union, though, and I'm reacting to the union's feeling of ownership (of classrooms, of jobs, etc.).

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 27, 2009 5:14 AM

The teachers are not the union. Really Justin than who is the union and wasnt the quote from a teacher.

Posted by: Erin go bragh at October 27, 2009 4:59 PM
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