This blog was referenced in Jay Mathews Washington Post article on February 2, 2012:
An outsider’s wild teacher-evaluation idea
We at FMS have always been passionate about education and have provided a wide range of software solutions for the education community at all levels. Over the past several years, I’ve served on a Business and Community Advisory Board to the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. The public schools in Fairfax County are among the best in the nation with 180,000 students, making it larger than 12 states (by student population). I currently serve as the school board representative on the county’s Information Technology Policy Advisory Committee (ITPAC) to the Board of Supervisors where we review major technology projects for the county.
At the beginning of the school year, I was appointed by the superintendent to participate in the county’s Teachers Performance Evaluation Task Force. I’m one of two outsiders on this committee of 35, which includes some of the best teachers, principals and administrators across the county. To meet the waiver requirements of the Federal No Child Left Behind statute, the State of Virginia is requiring teacher performance to be tied to student performance. The state department of education is recommending a 40% weighting. They are not defining on what to base student performance, but state standardized test scores immediately come to mind.
As an outsider who has never been evaluated as a teacher, you can imagine my surprise to discover that while principals were judged by their school’s student performance, student performance is not part of a teacher’s performance evaluation in our county (and probably state). 0% Are you kidding me?
I’ve learned that there’s a lot of angst around this. We all recognize that not all students are equal, and we don’t want to have a system where teachers are evaluated solely on student performance because the incentive would be to only want to teach good students. Good students may perform well in spite of bad teaching, so raw scores are not a good indicator of performance. The fairest testing evaluation system seems to be the concept of “value added” measurements. That is, as a teacher, you’d have students coming in at a certain percentile, and leaving at another percentile at the end of the year. If your students move up, you’ve added value; if they’ve moved down, they would have done better with an average teacher. Sounds good in concept, but this has practical problems such as kids moving in and out of classes within the year, impacts on kids outside teacher control, whether the test is a good measurement, multiple teacher collaborative environments, etc.
That said, 0% is still not acceptable. Nor is scrapping the whole concept based on a few outliers or issues. Especially compared to the current evaluation system where a principal or administrator sits in a classroom for less than an hour each quarter, and huge challenges removing under-performing teachers who don’t improve with training.
What have I learned?
I have been very impressed by individuals on the committee who get it. They understand that it’s in their best interest and that of their profession to set high standards and meet them. Failure to do so not only harms students but undermines political and taxpayer support for public education. Change is coming from the federal level down, and taking a leadership role has long-term benefits.
In our fast-changing software world, we need people to constantly gain new skills and improve their productivity. Performance with old technology last year may not be relevant this year. We can’t rewind each year and evaluate people on skills, client relationships, projects, etc. since so much changes each year. However, in education, the inputs each year are essentially the same (it’d be nice if student performance continually improved but that’s not changing significantly).
In spite of all the shortcomings, there are actually lots of objective measurements available to judge teacher performance. Almost all academic courses have existing pre-tests and post-tests for classes, and of course there are standardized tests. Those opposed to tying teacher performance to student achievement tend to be the ones least interested in providing any measurements for doing so. Propose alternatives if the existing ones are not acceptable. We can’t treat teaching like an art that can’t be measured.
As I pondered the issues around teacher performance, it always boiled down to philosophical issues. What does it mean to be a good teacher? Average class performance? Performance of the best kids? Raising the weakest kid? What if you can’t get a kid to engage and be interested? Whose fault is that? We’ve always known there are great teachers who many people love yet others passionately hate. Who’s best to judge, the students, administrators, peers, parents? Everything has shortcomings.
Who benefits and pays the most for good or bad teaching?
Over the holidays, I started thinking of teaching in a totally new way by considering: Who benefits and pays the most for good or bad teaching?
- Well, the students do of course, but no one is eager to have students evaluate teacher performance directly due to the many conflicts of interest.
- Parents? They certainly have a stake but being a parent myself and being around other parents, I would hardly consider parents qualified to really know what’s going on with individual classes — they should stay focused on evaluating their own children.
- Bureaucrats? Whether at the federal, state, or county level, I think they’re hard pressed to come up with specifics for evaluating a particular teacher. They can design what should be taught and offer resources and training, but evaluations taking into account each school and class’s unique situation is too detailed to do with broad requirements.
An alternative paradigm: ‘Teachers are the Customer’
I’ve now come up with a whole new way to look at teaching. Essentially, a teacher receives kids from upstream, trains them, and then passes them off to their next downstream teacher. Looking at it more like a production line, the teacher is a huge beneficiary and victim of good and bad teaching, more than anyone else in the system other than the student. Teachers should be empowered to define expectations and evaluate their upstream teachers for their performance. Done properly, this creates a positive feedback loop and automatically addresses any unique issues within a school. After all, doesn’t every teacher want to grow and deliver the best batch of students to their colleagues? Looking at it from this perspective, the teachers I discussed this with all knew exactly which teachers upstream from them they thought were good or bad overall and for different types of student personalities. In fact, several said there were teachers they would want or avoid sending their kids to. Wow, wouldn’t it be great to include the input of downstream teachers in a teacher’s evaluation? Isn’t that an important person each teacher is serving? I felt I made a mental breakthrough.
Feedback from the administrators
So I introduced this to the Teacher Performance Task Force last week. And while they appreciated my new perspective, I didn’t receive an immediate endorsement. They raised some issues such as teachers were not trained to do this, and how new teachers could properly evaluate more experienced teachers. I took their feedback under consideration.
At last night’s meeting, I mentioned my idea to the superintendent. He liked my approach and asked how it was received within the task force. It then occurred to me that the feedback there was not acceptable. The concept that more junior downstream teachers would evaluate more senior upstream teachers may be too foreign and frightening for some to accept, but that’s a resource which should be utilized. Training to do it properly is just training. You have to serve your customer. I’m not saying a teacher’s entire performance is based on that or that experience isn’t a factor (it is), but the next teacher plays a unique and important role in evaluating performance.
Overall, I appreciate the committee welcoming and encouraging my feedback and treating me as an equal, given my never having been a teacher. We all share a goal of improving public K-12 education with a fair teacher evaluation system, and I recognize I’m naive about these actual evaluation processes. They’ve asked for my out-of-the box thinking and applying best practices from outside the education community. That’s how I reached my teacher focused paradigm. Teachers have the most at stake with creating an evaluation system that at the very least, identifies and removes poor performers that training fails to improve. Teachers are very concerned with the new evaluation system, so empowering them in the process should be positively received. In the end, teachers pay the highest price if improvement doesn’t occur. First in their day-to-day classroom efforts dealing with under-prepared students, and longer term their professional reputation and taxpayer support. Removing under-performing teachers, doesn’t even reduce headcount. It gives an opportunity to someone who is eager to teach in the school system and has above average promise (if not, that’s a recruiting problem). Beyond that, the evaluation system should focus on professional development to help teachers identify areas of improvement. There will probably be a different process for evaluating rookie teachers who are expected to gain skills initially versus more experienced teachers who should already have those skills and falling back to “rookie” level would not be considered acceptable.
We have a few more meetings before the task force needs to finish and make its recommendations. They are hoping to put the new system in place for next school year. Wish me luck.