Originally published in CenterEd in 2013
If there’s one thing Kathy Smith wants people to know about how Michigan’s Farmington Public School District approached the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model, it can be summed up in one word: “Carefully.”
Anther word that comes up often when you talk about the process to Smith, principal of Wood Creek Elementary, is meetings. Lots and lots of meetings, spread out over a year and a half before the model was implemented.
“When you’ve got a really large district trying to do this really well, really thoughtfully, it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of work,” Smith says. “One of the things that Farmington has very specifically and intentionally done is a thorough development of the model we’re using.”
Planning for the plan
This development process started when district leaders began looking at available models for teacher evaluation. Then a small group of teachers, union reps, administrators, and principals got together to delve into the state legislation surrounding education and figure out how to make sense of it for their district.
“The legislation is, on its surface, pretty scary to teachers and administrators. We didn’t want to lose the vision and focus on what we were really all about, which is professional growth, professional self-reflection, and student growth,” Smith says. “We wanted to focus on building a collaborative structure and a culture of teamwork and trust.”
From those initial conversations, the committee decided to create a structure of seven “task teams” that had very specific focus areas. Each team comprised teachers and administrators who met during the course of the year and worked on issues like defining processes for using student growth measures, developing quality instructional practices, and identifying teacher and administrator responsibilities. The seventh team focused on the role of parent and student feedback in the teacher growth and evaluation model.
At the end of the school year, one team was convened to pull together all the recommendations and synthesize the results, and a “summer implementation team” was assembled to create the four-year implementation plan.
“More than 200 administrators and teachers were involved in developing this entire model,” says Smith, who acknowledges that not all districts have the wherewithal to devote so much time and effort to the change process. “But consider all the research on why programs and implementations fail: If the planning and the thoughtfulness of the buy-in don’t happen — if you tell people what they should be doing in a top-down model, you shouldn’t then wonder why it’s not working.”
Putting the plan into action
The 2013-14 school year is the first full implementation year of the Marzano model, and Smith is looking forward to being part of the growth process. Smith notes a marked improvement in how her teachers communicate with her and with each other.
“The model has given us a common language and clarity of learning targets,” she notes. “We have a shared clarity of vision and goals that definitely are more impactful, because now we have a team focus rather than just individual.”
Other strategies she’s seeing in action include monitoring for the desired effect and refining the use of learning goals and scales. “Even our amazing teachers, those who were always focused on growth, appreciate the frame for ‘Here’s where I am and here’s what I can do to stretch myself,’” Smith says. “And then having students monitor their own progress and understanding … well, teachers really see the benefit in that.”
Recommendations for the road
Even though every district’s road to change is different and paved with unique obstacles, Smith has a few suggestions from her own experience that might make the journey easier.
• Reflect on everything you do.
“We are professionals in a learning organization, and the biggest part of what we should be doing is professionally self-reflecting, both individually and in teams,” Smith says. “Administrators need to build a culture in which all teachers are encouraged to be reflective, to share with colleagues and teacher mentors and peers.”
• Work together. A lot.
The meetings and conversations, both formal and informal, continue at Wood Creek Elementary and throughout the Farmington district. In PLCs, in peer-to-peer interactions between teachers, and in ongoing committee sessions, dialogue occurs about the Marzano model, teacher practice, and student achievement.
“One thing we learned is the level of collaboration and thoughtfulness it takes in terms of developing something that everybody thought was best for our district,” Smith says. “And it takes a lot of skills. We all learned how to effectively facilitate a team and how to develop a communication conduit for feedback.”
• Take it slow and think it through.
Don’t try to do everything at once or rush into it and then throw up your hands when the house of cards comes crashing down.
“Are you really going to get the results you want by just doing an implementation that’s so quick, so surface?” Smith asks. “You’re never going to get teachers to the depth of collaboration and applications of those [Marzano] strategies without really taking the time and engaging them in the process.”
And then, with a smile, she says, “A lot of success in anything — even in a meeting — is in your planning.”