Making the most of teacher evaluations [Editorial]

The good news from a study of Maryland's transition to a new teacher evaluation system is that we are doing better than perhaps any other state. The bad news is something just about every parent, student and educator in the state probably already know: The pace of school reforms in recent years has been dizzying and and disorienting, and implementation across districts, schools and individual classrooms is uneven. Nonetheless, there is evidence that the new evaluation system can provide just the kind of focus on improving instruction for individual teachers and learning for individual students that it was designed for. The key for the state now is to effectively and uniformly implement these new evaluations during the next two school years so that educators' confidence in them is more widespread before they are used as the basis for personnel decisions.

The study, conducted by the Community Training and Assistance Center and the Mid-Atlantic Comprehensive Center of WestEd, involved surveys, key stakeholder interviews and focus groups. On the whole, it found principals to be strongly supportive of the new system — 70 percent believe expectations under the system are clear, 86 percent say that the system is geared toward producing continuous improvement in instruction, and 71 percent think that it recognizes the scope of an educator's role. Teachers were less supportive across the board, though more had a positive view of the evaluations than a negative one.

The Maryland State Department of Education trumpeted results, saying the report showed "growing support" for the evaluations, that "educators are embracing the use of student learning objectives," and that the system is "prompting deeper analysis and use of data to focus on student needs." The report's lead author, William J. Slotnik, said in an interview that Maryland is, indeed, far ahead of most if not all states both in building support for the evaluations and in using them to support the instructional process. But many challenges remain. The report reveals continued anxiety among at least a substantial minority of educators about the change, particularly in light of the state's simultaneous (and also markedly uneven) implementation of Common Core education standards.

Seven school districts, including those in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, have been using the new Teacher and Principal Evaluation system, or TPE, for three years now, starting in a handful of schools and eventually expanding to all of them. Other districts have two years of experience with the system, and some used it for the first time last year. In general, teachers in districts with more experience with TPE reported higher satisfaction and confidence in the system, and they saw it as more clearly aligned with the real world of classroom instruction.

But the report indicates that more than time and experience are required here. Teachers and principals who received training in the new system reported uniformly more positive attitudes about it, but the most important distinction the researchers found was between districts that viewed the exercise as an integral part of the instructional process and those that viewed it as an administrative chore. Districts that have the most support from educators are those where the evaluation process is entwined with strategies to achieve the state's college and career readiness goals and where leaders continually stress their importance in improving instruction, not just teacher accountability.

State education officials are clearly taking the evaluations seriously, and they are providing resources for districts, but because of the decentralized nature of education, there is only so much the state can do. Both teachers and principals found that school-level support for the evaluations was most important, closely followed by district level support, with state-level support a distant third. Although the new evaluations have the strong backing of the federal and Maryland departments of education, local school boards and superintendents may have the biggest role in determining their success.

What they need to do is to present a clear and consistent message that these evaluations are important and are not solely — or even primarily — about accountability for teachers but about providing them with the support they need to set and achieve goals for better instruction of their students. Establishing a culture in which these evaluations are viewed as tools for improving classroom instruction rather than weeding out bad educators is ultimately going to be more consequential than any particular strategy for implementing them.

The other critical thing for everyone involved — from the state's political leaders to parents — is patience. One of the most telling pieces of the report was a quote from an anonymous teacher who said, "Teachers are always in the third year of a five-year plan" — that is to say, our ideas about education reform keep changing so often that we get all the pain of transition and none of the payoff of completion. Maryland, like many other states, is embracing a wide range of reforms simultaneously, and they need to be given time to work.

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