Was I a Highly Effective Teacher? How Do You Assess the Impact of a Teacher? A Test Score? A Supervisory Observation? Over a School Year, or Over a Career?

Principal: “In my school all teachers will be highly effective.”
Charlotte Danielson, shaking her head, “No one lives in highly effective, we visit it occasionally.”

Every couple of months the alumni bulletin at the high school at which I taught for three decades arrives in the mail. An alumnus who was a journalist is writing a history of the school, a decade in each edition, primarily using the school newspaper as a resource. The school opened in the mid 1920’s and the history is up to the 70’s. The journalist contacted me, we chatted for a while, and I reminisced about the halcyon days of yore.

I opened the spring, 2013 edition and read,

…Larry Weinstein, Gary Calka, ’71, and Steve Lustig, ’71 conducted a poll for a paper assigned in Peter Goodman’s Urban Affairs class. They surveyed 250 Madison juniors on a variety of topics, including pot smoking, sex education and contraception distribution, the need for school security guards, and satisfaction with Madison education. “[I taught units on polling techniques, stratified random samples, focus groups etc.] Larry remembers how he and his classmates were called into the principal’s office, where “we feared for our lives.” Instead Dr. Forsheit was “fascinated and wanted to know our methodology. He was very encouraging and excited that we had done this on our own.”

Students remembered, in detail, what I had taught more than forty years ago!

Did I achieve my Student Learning Objectives?

Did my lesson comply with the Danielson Frameworks?

Was I a Highly Effective teacher?

Teaching is far more of an art than a science – we strive to be creative – to “connect” with our students, to find the activity that motivates students to delve into the subject matter – and we’re never quite sure of how successful we are.

We do know the total emphasis on exam scores is a poor substitute for creative, challenging lessons.

If students re-took a regents exam a month after taking the original exam would they achieve a similar grade? Probably a much lower grade. What we call project-based learning or portfolio learning, whether in English or Social Studies or a Science class results in learning/skills acquisition that builds upon the past and provide steps to future learning, far more meaningful than a score on one 3-hour exam.

Beginning next year every teacher will receive a numerical score based on student test scores, the mystical Student Learning Objectives and supervisory observations based on the Danielson frameworks.

The “science” that creates a teacher score is highly unstable; the scores vary significantly from year to year.

Economic Policy Institute, “Problems with the use student test scores to evaluate teachers,” by Richard Rothstein and other, August 27, 2010, tells us,

For a variety of reasons, analyses of VAM results have led researchers to doubt whether the methodology can accurately identify more and less effective teachers. VAM estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years, and classes that teachers teach. One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40% …. Thus, a teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might have a dramatically different result the following year. The same dramatic fluctuations were found for teachers ranked at the bottom in the first year of analysis. This runs counter to most people’s notions that the true quality of a teacher is likely to change very little over time and raises questions about whether what is measured is largely a “teacher effect” or the effect of a wide variety of other factors.

If Value-Added Modeling, (VAM), using a complex metric to compare teachers and assign them a numerical grade (in New York State the numerical score converts to Highly Effective, Effective, Developing and Ineffective) is unstable, prone to errors, and widely suspect, how should we assess teacher effectiveness?

At a meeting a teacher exclaimed, “Why don’t they leave me alone, I know what I’m doing,” many heads nodded, sotto voce, I mumbled, “but do the kids know what you’re doing?”

The process of teaching is inextricably tied to learning, you cannot blame the kids, yes, external factors impact, it is our job, school leaders and teachers, to figure it out, how do we take kids from where we find them and move them forward?

I listened to a presentation by a high school senior: a research project about childhood prostitution in India and Bangladesh; the student had been in the country for three years, she and her family had fled Tibet and lived in Nepal and India before immigrating to the land of hope and opportunity.

A quiz, a well-crafted test, daily writing assignments, period long in-class writing assignments, a research paper, all filling a portfolio, a defense of the research project before peers, teachers and critical friends are more powerful and impactful than one 3-hour regents exam.

Teachers might agree and remind us that they teach five periods a day with thirty kids in a class – 150 kids a day. They are absolutely correct!! The school leader should redesign the school – flexible, block scheduling would allow teachers to teach longer classes with fewer students, learning communities, cohorts of teachers and kids within a school personalizes student-teacher interactions, all the responsibility of a school leader, to create a learning environment to maximize the abilities and the effectiveness of the teacher.

In some schools kids are highly motivated and in others the motivation is low, we only measure the cognitive skills, those skills we can numerically measure, we fail to measure, or teach the non-cognitive skills which may be more important in the world of work.

See “Data-driven Student Success Solution: The Role of Non-cognitive Abilities in Predicting and Promoting Student Success,” here

See “The Role of Non-cognitive Skill in Academic Success,” here

Unfortunately the teacher evaluation arbitration decision crafted by the Commissioner is rigid, it does not allow for a “design your own,” the plan requires, depending on the model chosen by the teacher, four or six observations a year.

For a number of years in my school teachers voluntarily divided into triads, two teachers observed the third teacher, within a few days the teachers observed each other, the supervisor facilitated a discussion of the lessons and the minutes served as an observation report. It was an eye-opener for the teachers who had never watched a colleague teach a lesson. Did it improve practice? I have no idea; it did create a conversation about teaching.

“Walk-throughs,” brief observations of lessons, are encouraged, although some teachers derisively call them “drive-byes.” Brief observations are useful – Is the class engaged? Does the teacher overly dominate the lesson? Do the kids spend too much time on worksheets? Does the teacher move around the room checking on student work? If the brief observation is followed up with a brief discussion it is a useful tool.

Next year the increased number of observations will morph into a compliance system – the principal probably entering the time and date of the observation into a database, the department issuing some sort of a warning, In red flashing lights on the principal portal: “Warning, Warning, it is November 1 and you are 31 observations behind the required annual 240 teacher observations.” On the other hand I heard an arrogant principal applaud, “Post-observation conferences are a waste of time – they can read.”

I hear constant criticism of newer principals, let not idolize the principals of the past. For decades schools struggled to fill classroom positions, it was commonplace for schools to suffer from vacancies for months. Teacher pay was low and in a booming economy jobs were readily available. Over the last decade teaching has become a desirable profession – the Teaching Fellows Program is overwhelmed with applicants, CUNY and SUNY are graduating many teaching candidates – there are scores of candidates for each job – and thousands of certified candidate seeking jobs.

In the mid- nineties 17% of teacher were uncertified, when I asked a principal his definition of a satisfactory teacher he snapped back, “They arrive on time, every day and blood doesn’t run out from under the door.”

Maybe you were observed one or twice a year, maybe not observed at all. High school graduation rates in scores of schools were appalling, no one seemed to care. We idolized principals of yore because if we “came to school every day, on time” principals left us alone. It may have been a comfortable era for teachers, I remember at Taft High School one year there were no graduates with regents diplomas – that’s right – none – in a school with a 40% graduation rate – all local diplomas with the low skill Regent Competency Test (RCT) exam – a ninth grade skills level exam. No one hassled the staff, unfortunately, or the kids.

Today the world has changed, yes; the teacher evaluation plan (APPR) on the surface looks deeply flawed. Teachers cannot reject APPR and reject school leader teacher observations.

Teachers and school leaders must fight together to create schools in which teacher growth is as important as student growth, a climate of lifelong learning. The macro policies of school governance and school-system structure dominate the debates and the headlines; the micro policies, how do we create learning communities for students and teachers within schools will determine our future.

The answer is not, “leave us alone, we know what we’re doing,” the answer should be, “help us to work together and improve – teachers and school leaders.”

A few decades down the road when that Tibetan young lady is leading a worldwide organization to extinguish childhood prostitution we’d like her to reminisce about that teacher who encouraged and motivated her.


One response to “Was I a Highly Effective Teacher? How Do You Assess the Impact of a Teacher? A Test Score? A Supervisory Observation? Over a School Year, or Over a Career?

  1. Years ago in a famous Supreme Court decision on pornography Judge Potter Stewart said “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it” The same applies to teaching/learning. However, that calls for a definition of excellence. Danielson above all integrates the constant theme of thinking. Is there a metric that measures student thinking? What student work products demonstrate the process of from hypothesis to thesis? Will the D.O.E. provide the training and support necessary to develop “thinking” by principals and teachers? How will some degree of consistency be established over a system that services over a million different students in disparate circumstances so we don’t devolve int excellence by zip code? Eduction at its best is an Art form that involves communication at multiple levels that can’t be definined but you know it when you see it. What are the metrics to identify, define, and reproduce an Van Gough knife sroke?.


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