“I’m an experienced teacher, I know what I’m doing, why don’t they just leave me alone.”
A dirty little secret: teachers hate to be observed and principals hate to do observations.
The new principal-teacher evaluation plan, which begins this school year, requires every teacher in New York City to select an observation plan from two options, a combination of formal (pre-observation, observation, post-observation conferences) and unannounced observations. A lengthy, detailed manual spells it out in excruciating detail.
In theory, the purpose of the observation process is both a normative and a summative assessment process – to work with the teacher to improve their practice and effectiveness and produce an end year grade as part of the new system. Instead of the last line in an observation report, “This was an (un)satisfactory lesson,” the rating officer will “grade” the lesson using the Danielson Frameworks as a guide – (H)ighly effective, (E)ffective, (D)eveloping or (I)effective, translating to a numerical grade from 0 to 60. The combination of the supervisor grade (60%), the growth in student test scores (20%) and the locally negotiated tool (20%), the teacher will receive a composite score which will translate into a grade on the HEDI scale.
Based on previously calculated metrics, statewide, 7% of teachers will be highly effective, 6% will be ineffective and the remaining 87% will fall in the effective/developing categories.
Back to that dirty little secret: principals spend very little time in classrooms, and the time they do spend observing lessons is mechanical and compliance drive. Ideally principals will conduct “frequent cycles of brief observations with meaningful feedback,” the “ideal” is the exception.
Teacher classroom performance will be measured against the Danielson Frameworks, a combination of domains, components and elements that describe observed classroom behaviors, divided into the four HEDI ratings.
Charlotte Danielson’s other book, Talk About Teaching, is meant as a guide to supervisors on how to engage teachers in meaningful conversations about their instructional practice, a book that should be required reading for principals.
Sitting in a yellowing folder in my file cabinet is a folder entitled “Observations,” a career of supervisory observations and various letters I received from a variety of principals and assistant principals. Each letter begins with description of the lesson, makes commendations and recommendations and concludes with the one-liner rating the lesson.
No matter how long you’ve been teaching, no matter your level of confidence in your craft, you’re nervous, the kids are nervous, and breathe a huge sigh of relief when the supervisor leaves. To the best of my memory post observation conferences were only for the newbies, a few days after the observation two copies in your mailbox, sign and return one.
Did the process make me a better teacher? No.
What I later discovered was the antipathy with which the observer, the supervisor, viewed the process. It was time consuming, potentially conflict-riven, and in many schools was reviewed by the supervisor on the next step up the ladder. The observer was being observed.
I improved as a teacher as I interacted with other teachers, shared ideas and lesson plans, debated how to turn a topic or concept into a lesson, and practiced my craft. Luckily I worked in a school in which experienced and new teachers and assistant principals worked together in a collaborative spirit. In lieu of traditional observations teachers could choose to observe each other with the notes of the post observation meeting serving as the formal observation report.
We knew who were the outstanding teachers, the ordinary teachers and the weak teachers.
Back to that teacher who argues, “I know what I’m doing,” the core question: do the kids know what you’re doing?
In theory, for the first time, the employer will be assessing both teaching and learning – observers of the actual classroom practice and the extent to which the student “learned” the subject being taught.
In reality the excruciatingly complex system and the lingering animosity between management and labor leaves a foul odor. It will take a new mayor and a chancellor to sweeten the air.
Research on the use of the Danielson Frameworks is both positive and troubling.
The well-regarded Chicago Consortium on School Researched conducted a study of principal-teacher teams who observed teachers using the Danielson Frameworks,
* Where teachers received the highest ratings on the Danielson Frameworks … students showed the most growth in test scores, and students showed the least growth scores in classrooms where teachers received the lowest scores.
* Principals and teachers said that [post-observation] conferences were more reflective … and were focused on instructional practice and improvement, however, many principals lack the instructional coaching skills required to have deep discussions about teacher practice.
* More than half of principals were highly engaged … principals who were not engaged tended to say it was too labor intensive.
Two or three years down the road, with many bumps and potholes we will have data that identifies teachers who are consistently highly effective and ineffective.
How should we use the data?
To fire low performers, to reward high performers, to validate what experienced principals already know?
Let’s focus on the “highly effective” category.
What makes these teachers highly effective?
Have teachers moved up the HEDI ladder – from Developing to Effective, from Effective to Highly Effective, and, if so, why?
If not, why not?
Why are some teachers more effective?
A superior college preparation program? Intensive mentoring by supervisors and/or teachers? Higher intelligence? Ability to listen, reflect and respond? Or, are there genetic reasons; aka, is there a “teaching” gene?
The massive three-year Gates funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project is hugely disappointing. The report tells us we should use multiple measures to assess teachers, including a heavy percentage of student scores and, preferably observations by multiple supervisors and peers.
Gates (MET) does not answer: why are Mr. Smith and Miss Jones great teachers, measured by observations and student achievement?
In the sports arena the quest for the answer is ongoing. With billions of dollars at stake the motivation to “predict” success in sports has encouraged research project after research project.
David Epstein in “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance (2013)” takes a deep look at the question: why do Jamaicans from the same tiny town dominate the world of sprinting? Why do Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the distance races? Is Malcolm Gladwell’s premise in “Outliers” correct, the 10,000 hour rule, “the magic number of greatness,” as Gladwell calls the rule, “skills that appear to be predicated on innate gifts are often nothing more than the manifestations of thousands of hours of practice”?
Maybe that grizzled veteran was right, years of teaching did make him better – the 10,000 hour rule?
Then again, are children of teachers more effective teachers themselves – that stubborn nature – nurture controversy?
Teachers, and principals, have a moral obligation to strive to get better, from year one to the year they retire. We should be lifelong learners, lifelong searchers, the challenge never ends, nor should it.