T.J. Chandler is the founder of EdZapp, Oregon’s statewide online employment application, and is now the Regional Director of Operations for Netchemia, LLC working with K-12 teacher and administrator evaluations. T.J. was formerly the Director of Business Applications for the New York City Board of Education, and has worked with over one hundred school districts across the country on operational and human capital issues. T.J. holds degrees from Willamette University and Princeton University.
As some celebrate the 10th anniversary of NCLB and others curse it, I ask, “What have we learned from it?” In particular, I am intrigued by certain parallels between evaluating “student achievement” and “teacher performance.”
Like the discussions 10-15 years ago about students “falling behind” and “dropping out,” policy-makers realize that there is a problem with teacher effectiveness and attrition. The tough part for both problems, of course, is specifying–in meaningful and legally-defensible terms–which individuals are having trouble, and even more importantly how to help them improve.
For example, it is well documented that standardized test scores are more highly correlated to the student’s parents’ characteristics (income and education level) than that student’s own efforts (school attendance, classes taken, discipline record) or any other factor for that matter. While some adjustments have been made to standardized tests to “level the playing field,” the debate still rages over how effective such tests are in measuring student achievement–let alone prescribing interventions to boost that achievement. The loudest and most consistent criticisms of NCLB are that high-stakes tests distort the educational process.
Similarly, a review of teacher evaluations at virtually any district in the State reveals that the summative scores are rarely indicative of a teacher’s actual contributions to student learning. Whether or not you accept the “Widget Effect” promoted by The New Teacher Project, I have been in enough classrooms to be convinced that some outstanding teachers are not given the recognition or opportunities to grow that they deserve, while some incompetent teachers remain in the classroom to the detriment of our children. Most discouraging, the “Satisfactory” teachers (like “Average” students) are not given meaningful feedback to act upon in order to grow. Increasingly rigorous standards, such as InTASC, and sophisticated evaluation rubrics, such as Danielson’s Framework for Teaching are elevating the discussion–and the contentiousness–surrounding teacher evaluation, much as the Common Core Standards and various student assessment tools have over the past decade for student achievement. Indeed, the loudest and most consistent criticisms of teacher evaluation are that high-stakes summative evaluations distort the educational process.
In principals’ offices, the problem is in the implementation. Whether standardized tests or standards-based evaluations, highly prescriptive methodologies imposed by State and Federal authorities can be burdensome and unmanageable, with complicated forms and reporting requirements that may or may not resonate with the principal’s leadership style or local culture of the school. In the absence of prescriptive guidance, however, many schools will do nothing at all.
I am sure there are many lessons from NCLB, but a few components that I have found most compelling include: early childhood intervention through programs such as Head Start and student nutrition services, differentiated instruction and thoughtful curriculum, and comparative data collection.
How are these applicable to teacher evaluation?
First, we should approach the educator’s “career lifecycle” more holistically. Just as Head Start promotes literacy in early childhood, the development of a teacher should begin before she enrolls in an MAT program. We should nurture the skills, characteristics, and competencies that we seek in teachers by encouraging prospective teachers to enter the profession, and then continue to develop those traits throughout the preparation programs, the licensure/certification process, the recruitment and hiring process, ongoing professional development, and yes, even formative and summative evaluations in their jobs. There currently seem to be significant disconnects between these stages of a teacher’s career, and a lack of coordination between the various partners that manage each stage. We need to nourish these aspiring educators throughout their careers as though they were hungry children!
Second, we should provide differentiated and thoughtful professional development for educators. An interesting article on differentiating teacher evaluations makes the important point that a new music teacher and an experienced math teacher have very different styles and needs, and therefore should not be evaluated in the same way. In my experience, the best educators are those who take an active and interested role in their own growth and development. They are excited to learn and to become better teachers. Which, not surprisingly, is exactly what we want to inspire in students! Unfortunately, too many great teachers feel “suffocated” or get discouraged by the lack of professional growth opportunities in their schools, and “dropout” from the profession. I am encouraged by some of the models emerging around the State that provide more latitude for professional development and career paths for educators.
Finally, we should collect–and publish–data on teacher effectiveness. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times published student achievement data for all of the teachers in the L.A. Unified School District, as part of a “Value Added Model” (aka VAM) analysis. Although highly controversial, it has been an outstanding reminder that no single measure defines educator effectiveness, and has opened up meaningful conversations about data, student learning, and accountability. Ideally, we should have an environment where data are readily available and explained, so rather than being a threat, it is seen as an opportunity to recognize and understand trends and anomalies.
If we have learned one thing from NCLB, it is that “one size does not fit all.” The tough work ahead, of course, is finding a size that DOES fit and that brings the best educators into the profession and keeps them here.