ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Engineering School Cultures for Successful Teacher Evaluation

Post written by Elle Allison, cofounder and president of Wisdom Out in Danville, Calif. Wisdom Out is a leadership and organizational development company that helps people sustain transformational change and bring their best initiatives to deep implementation. Connect with Allison by e-mail at elle@wisdomout.com. This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.

As many states prepare to launch new educator evaluation systems and amidst ongoing controversy about how to make them fair and meaningful, teachers and administrators alike would do well to ask these questions: What is it about the current culture in which we are introducing these new instruments that will imperil their effectiveness and prevent them from helping teachers and students? How can we engineer cultures for effective teacher evaluation?

Historical Assumptions

In a recent performance-improvement coaching workshop held at the Rhode Island Center for School Leadership, administrators and teacher leaders from school districts throughout the state explored these questions. We began by surfacing the tacit assumptions that seem to operate when teachers receive an "unsatisfactory" or "in need of improvement" rating on their evaluations. The candid list that emerged (not the personal views of the participants!) included the following notions:

  • Teachers in need of improvement are not good teachers.
  • Teachers in need of improvement do not know their own strengths or weaknesses.
  • Administrators believe they are the experts.
  • Teachers in need of improvement don't care about students or teaching.
  • Teachers in need of improvement are lazy; if they weren't, they would have already taken steps to improve.
  • Administrators who rate teachers low just want to get rid of them.
  • A low rating is just the first hoop administrators have to jump through to fire a poorly performing teacher.
  • Teachers who are rated as being in need of improvement are just being picked on.
  • Administrators only rate the teachers they don't personally like as being in need of improvement.
  • Teachers in need of improvement don't believe they need to improve.
  • If administrators rate teachers low, they had better be prepared for fights.

It's not a pretty list, and it's certainly not a set of helpful assumptions for introducing new teacher-evaluation initiatives. No one would argue that if the tacit assumptions underlying the historical culture surrounding teacher evaluation prevail, then even the best new evaluation frameworks will fall prey to the same debilitating forces that have long bedeviled our profession.

New Frameworks, New Cultures

High-quality teacher evaluation is one facet of a systemic approach to providing a world-class education to students and communities. As such, any new teacher-evaluation model begs for the system it operates within to favor it; to leverage energy toward its successful launch and implementation. What if, simultaneous to improving the technology of teacher evaluation in ways that could fundamentally advance our profession, we rewire the culture for optimal implementation and sustainability? What are the make-it-or-break-it elements of a culture in which teacher evaluation is a welcomed strategy for professional development and student achievement?

Here are seven priorities for creating inspired school cultures where teacher evaluation is a powerful strategy for student success:

  1. Broadcast the belief that passionate leadership is developing the people one leads. Sue Page and Maggie Cuellar, both area superintendents of the Alief School District in Texas, believe that leadership is seen primarily in how well and how often leaders develop the people they lead. Just as passionate and effective teachers use evaluation to facilitate student growth, administrators demonstrate their passion for leadership by treating every observation, conversation, and evaluation as an opportunity to develop and support teachers. Evaluation that arises from this paradigm is trustworthy and sincere.
  2. Embrace the perspective that for different reasons and at any time in an adult's life, transformational change is possible. Emboldened by this perspective, evaluators treat the process of supervision and evaluation with attention and care. They resist allowing it to slip into a pro forma activity, a set of meaningless hoops to jump through, or one more checklist to complete.
  3. Make conversations about improvement an organizational ritual. For example, at the end of every meeting and event, gather and document observations about where improvements are warranted and the lessons learned.
  4. Demystify the leadership improvement goals of administrators. Ask leaders to share the areas they want to improve with their staffs and teams and solicit regular feedback that they can share with their evaluator, school board, or leadership coach. This practice makes learning and improvement an organizational norm for all employees—not a system of "gotchas" aimed at teachers.
  5. Empower every faculty member to boldly pursue learning in areas they identify for growth and change. Every faculty member should passionately pursue deep learning in at least one challenging and intriguing area of teaching. These individuals then become one of many resident leaders who will coach, mentor, and teach colleagues. Set up an internal knowledge-management webpage and other structures to profile teachers, showcase what they have been learning, and connect colleagues to one another.
  6. Teach every administrator a process and protocol for holding performance-improvement coaching sessions with colleagues and direct reports. Lisa Harris, a specialist for foreign language with the Virginia Department of Education who has served on several teacher-evaluation review boards, says that the number-one problem is administrators who tell teachers what they need to learn and do to improve but then fail to hold regular coaching conversations with them to reflect on new learning and plan for using it. Harris says, "These administrators fail to sustain a relationship with teachers. They don't realize that it is not enough to tell teachers what to do—they also have to follow up with them." Evaluators who coach their direct reports create powerful relationships where any topic can come up and any challenge can be faced.
  7. Promote adaptability and resilience throughout the organization by encouraging teachers to continuously improve upon best practices. The funny thing about best practices is they can eventually straitjacket innovation, change, and growth. Best practices are essential to establish and communicate knowledge about what works. But their real value is that through practitioner use, they invite experimentation and exploration that leads to powerful adaptations.

Take Up the Gauntlet

Truth be told, on their own, the seven priorities for creating optimal cultures for teacher evaluation are not new ideas as much as they are neglected ideas. As noted educator and author Peter Drucker famously said, "culture eats strategy for breakfast" and education, like many systems of similar complexity, has seen many good strategies succumb to lousy cultures. The challenge and opportunity before us is to implement new practices in teacher evaluation while giving equal thought to creating cultures that enhance and sustain the benefits we might gain from them.

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