An Honest Assessment for our Teachers

Recently, a friend of mine who is not an educator posed the following question to me: “If teachers don’t like being evaluated based on student test scores, on what basis should we evaluate them?” It’s a fair question. While I agree that test scores alone are far too narrow metric for assessing a teacher’s efficacy, we don’t hear enough about alternatives in public discussions about teacher evaluation. I’d like to pose three.

But first, let me say that the reason test scores keep hanging on as a vehicle for teacher assessment—as well as for student assessment—is that they are objective, standardized, measurable, and can be cheaply applied to scale because we are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy these tests for students. From a business perspective, it makes sense to get a second use out of these tests. So, for the teachers reading this, let me say that so long as our schools, and our state departments of education are run by “education leaders” with cross-over Ed.D./MBA degrees, I doubt very much that testing as a metric will be going away. What I hope to accomplish by advocating these three alternatives, is a more honest assessment of and for our teachers as professionals.

Objective economies of scale are one perspective, but they are not the only perspective that should be considered when assessing our teachers. Indeed, by relying on objective metrics alone, we’re missing other crucial perspectives—those of the students, their parents, and the teachers themselves as professionals, often with years of experience that develop into a strong sense of professional competence. The problem is that these perspectives are all subjective, unique, qualitative, and rather expensive to “capture” for use in assessing our teachers. That said, I think most of us who have sat in on our children’s parent teacher conferences would rather hear about each of these three, than simply learn what percentile we might locate our children on a national level. Given the importance of parents in the education market, I’m not sure we can afford to ignore their perspectives, even if subjective.

1) How well does the teacher know his or her students?

Recently, while observing classes at Health Leadership High School (HLHS) in Albuquerque New Mexico, the school leadership team came to the conclusion that “how we talk to our students and one another as teachers really matters.” Where teachers appeared to know and understand the needs of their students, students in turn responded in kind by making an effort to understand what it was the teacher was asking them to do, and as a result, they knew what to do without needing to be told, or worse, scolded into it.

HLHS is a project-based learning (PBL) school and, as I’ve written elsewhere, it is based on the premise that we should be putting relationships before rigor. It was so easy to see this at HLHS, and it’s so easy to hear it at a parent-teacher conference. A teacher who knows his or her students can talk about students, and even with students, in a way that connotes authority and professionalism. A teacher who does not really know his or her students, will always fall back on discussing individual test scores.

2) How well does the teacher differentiate instruction, and document that differentiation to meet the needs of his or her students?

During the same observations at HLHS, it was also immediately clear that when teachers knew how to talk to their students, they also knew how to differentiate instruction for their students. This is not simply a question of offering more “at bats,” to borrow a phrase from Tom Peters, nor to simply allow students to work on different things at different times. That’s just good PBL! Rather, the differentiation we noted was the ability for a teacher to move, with facility, from one team to another while posing challenges that are uniquely and developmentally appropriate to the students on that team.

As an example, in one hectic integrated project classroom the veteran PBL educator could provide remediation in mathematics for those who needed it, while praising a model of the heart made by another team in such a way as to challenge them to do more than what they had done, because they were ready for that challenge. “You’ve done several models at this simple level,” he said, “how can you make this model more dynamic and complex?” Within a few minutes, that same teacher was over with a student who was struggling with an on-line English text. Disappearing for a moment, he returned from the printer room with a hardcopy because he heard that student say “reading online is hard for me with so much else going on. I want to be able to write on this article.”

All three of these are examples of effective differentiation, and I was glad to be there to document them on that day. That said, school leaders need to work to support teachers in keeping more robust files (digitally or in hardcopy) that document moves like this every day. Such portfolios offer a far richer assessment of teacher professionalism than do a class list of test scores, which can only tell us about individual students in relation to norms and averages.

3) How does the teacher help his or her students learn to self-identify strengths, and to self-advocate on the basis of those strengths in order to address perceived opportunities for growth.

As the day of observations came to a close at HLHS, we regrouped for a debrief using the Final Word Protocol. Over the course of the hour, another honest assessment of teachers emerged from the contributions of several of the school leaders. Some noticed that the teachers were working hard to empower the students to articulate their own assets on a project, using either English or Spanish as this is a bilingual learning environment. Others noticed that students were attempting to do this on their own, whether it was calling for “fairness” in listening to one another’s oral presentations, or suggesting that students could support one another when they struggled, rather than always turning to the teachers for help.

As we reflected on what we had seen, we formed a Driving Question for further thinking about teacher professional development at this school: “How can we support our teachers efforts to empower students to self-advocate for their own learning?” That’s a pretty profound question after one day of classroom observations, and it suggests a level of deeper learning on the part of these school leaders than anyone might ever draw from comparing test data.

Any teacher who can do these three things will get results that can also be tracked using a growth model of testing. It’s hard to imagine that such attention to the students and their needs would not lead to improvement, or that parents wouldn’t be thrilled to have a teacher who can do these three things when working with their children. I think these three strategies—properly documented and shared among teachers as part of thoughtful professional learning networks—offer an honest assessment for our teachers.

Beyond that rather subjective notion, however, I also think two crucial differences would result if we shifted our focus more broadly than student test scores.
The first, is that a teacher who can consciously use these three classroom strategies will be able to articulate and explain the growth that standardized test scores document. As such, that teacher will be able to help other teachers grow in their own professionalism. The growth that is documented using these three subjective strategies isn’t just for the students, but also for the teachers and their colleagues. It is, therefore, just as economical and scalable as more top-down forms of professional development that stem from test-based assessments of gaps in teacher efficacy. The trick, is in making sure teachers are matched with one another in a way that helps each follow their own unique professional learning arc.

The second, and perhaps far more importance difference is related to this notion that teachers—like their students—are traveling unique learning arcs rather than engaged in a common pursuit to reach “at standard.” Any teacher working from these three subjective strategies will grow 30-40 unique individuals in every class he or she teaches. Those teachers, and their students, will understand this and as such have a much better time finding their place in the world than is the case for the literally thousands of straight A, high scoring test-takers who often end up struggling with what to do once they are done with their schooling. I would argue that this is what our post-industrial societies need, not 30-40 identical individuals measured as “proficient” according to a common standard. In arguing that, I feel I’m in pretty good company as, in the end, it’s why our business and entrepreneurial leaders are now saying they’re so dissatisfied with those dime a dozen MBAs coming out of what are supposed to be America’s best schools.

Maybe, just maybe, if we had an honest professional assessment mechanism for our teachers that went beyond test scores, we’d get the different results they’re looking for?

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