Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Teacher Evaluation?

Originally published in CenterEd on September 20, 2013

There’s probably nothing quite as disheartening to a straight-A student as receiving a less-than-perfect grade on an assignment. It stands to reason, then, that teachers who are accustomed to receiving stellar results on their evaluations would feel similarly discouraged upon receiving lower-than-expected ratings.

Two recent news stories out of Boston and New York illustrate just how difficult it is for teachers to process receiving a score of “developing” or even “ineffective” or “needs improvement” on their evaluations. In a story from New York’s Times Union, an English teacher worries that her career is over because she received a “developing” designation on her evaluation and is now on a mandated improvement plan. In Somerville, Massachusetts, an estimated 75 percent of teachers received a “needs improvement” rating — a mere step above “unsatisfactory” — and there was such a collective uproar that the district has decided to purge all the low evaluations.

“‘Teachers welcome honest feedback about their performance, but unfortunately that didn’t happen in this situation,’ said Jackie Lawrence, president of the Somerville Teachers Association. ‘Overall, teachers were demoralized and felt devalued.’”
 
Avoiding the mistakes of others

It is this exact scenario that Robye Kay Jackson, principal of Truman Elementary School in Norman, Oklahoma, most wants to avoid for her teachers. A relatively new principal — she’s in her fourth year as head administrator for her school — Jackson brings almost two decades of experience as an educator to her role and knows well the shortcomings of previous evaluation systems.
 
  “It was a checklist, basically, of ‘the teacher is or is not doing these things in the classroom,’” she recalls. “It was, ‘meets expectations,’ or ‘needs improvement’; not a lot of options for conversations about what needed to change in instruction.”
 
  When her school district made the decision to implement the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model — the process began at the start of the 2012-13 school year — Jackson was excited about the opportunities she saw for conversation and collaboration between administrators and teachers, and between teachers and their peers. Although she stresses that the journey toward full mastery of the model is in its beginning stages and progressing slowly, the growth she has seen thus far is encouraging.

Using Marzano for growth, not just measurement
 
  “I still feel like, as a school, we’re learning a lot. We’re making the shift to having teachers work on their own growth goals, and that piece is a bit new, so it’s evolving slowly,” Jackson says. “But I think it almost has to, because the teachers really do need to understand what’s happening and then they will be able to see how they’re benefiting from this entire process.”

Jackson acknowledges that her teachers were initially uncomfortable with how much time she spent in their classrooms last year, doing walkthrough observations as well as formal and informal visits. However, once they became accustomed to her presence and were reassured as to her intentions, the process went more smoothly than she had anticipated.
 
  “I think they felt that I was definitely in their classrooms more than I had been previously and they were probably a little nervous,” she says with a chuckle. “But when they were trained a bit more and knew what I was doing in there, it became not as big of a deal. And had I not been doing all those observations and seeing what was going on, I don’t know that I would have had the same level of conversations with them or the knowledge to talk about specific elements of their instruction like I did.”
 
Baby steps will still get you where you want to go

Even though the first full year of implementation is barely past, Jackson says she saw a number of small but significant changes that demonstrated to her that the model is working. She says that she has begun to feel more like an instructional leader at her school and that she has witnessed an evolution of teaching and learning in her teachers’ classrooms. Teachers are expecting — and getting — more from traditionally low-expectancy students. Teachers are intentionally monitoring students’ understanding through strategies such as sitting on the floor with kids as they engage in “partner talks” to process lesson content. And Jackson has had conversations about effective use of homework, differentiating instruction and homework, and creating effective learning goals and scales.
 
  “It has been a slow process, but there’s nothing wrong with that because even these little increments of instructional improvement and the little things I’m noticing about students, well — that wasn’t happening nine months ago,” Jackson says.

What’s the score, and what does it mean?

Of course, something else that wasn’t happening nine months ago is the use of the Marzano model to evaluate Truman Elementary teachers. And, Jackson says, everyone in her school was more than a little anxious about how the process would go — and what the results would look like.

“There’s so much truth that comes out when you’re using a model like this,” Jackson muses. “This is all still evolving, but it’s scary to teachers to have a low score. It helps that all the administrators in Norman are using the Marzano School Leader Evaluation Model, which has the same scale, so I’m able to show them elements from my own evaluation — my score of ‘beginning’ or ‘developing’ in certain areas — and reassure them that they don’t have to be afraid of it themselves. That it’s a growth goal, and it’s ok to score ‘beginning’ in something because that’s an area we want to work on. So you can get these lower scores and still show that you’re the 90-something percent teacher we know you are.”

A note of pride enters her voice as she adds, “I’ve got a really awesome staff. We’ve gone through this together, and they’ve been so professional in dealing with all of these changes.”

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