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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

On a New Direction for Teacher Evaluation: A Conversation with Tom McGreal

You've worked with school districts all over the United States to redesign their teacher evaluation programs. Are you seeing a lot of change in the way educators are thinking about teacher evaluation?
Yes, we've seen the most change since the mid-1980s, when districts and whole states were hit by the press for accountability driven by the teacher effects research and Madeline Hunter's work. Because of that, many districts moved away from the goal-setting models they had just begun trying, and the effectiveness stuff has dominated evaluations since then.
But now it's moving in a new direction?
It certainly seems to be. What I hear from the people I've been working with and the materials I've been getting from districts around the country suggest that educators recognize that the procedures we used in the past just don't fit the way we're seeing schools now—and what we're asking teachers to do in classrooms.
Say a little more about what's contributing to this movement.
Certainly one of the driving forces is dissatisfaction with what schools have been doing. I sense that both teachers and administrators are frustrated that conventional evaluation practices don't really serve the purposes of either group.
You're saying they're dissatisfied with evaluations based on "This is how good teachers behave; let's see whether you behave in these ways."
Right. The old way refers back to the research on teacher behaviors and the notion of the strong administrator who knows what to look for. It relies almost exclusively on classroom observations done every year or two and on summative writeups after that.
These days we have different expectations for what constitutes good subject-matter teaching. Teachers are being urged to move from explicit instruction models to more constructivist teaching—with students actively involved—and more complex outcomes. If that's what teaching is supposed to be, the old models of classroom observation—the kinds of data we collect and how we process them—just don't fit very well.
Another factor is our understanding of what helps adults—particularly adult professionals—to grow and develop. We know that adults respond primarily to positive reinforcement, that they want to be involved, that they prefer to operate in a collegial and collaborative environment. And traditional teacher evaluation violates many of these new understandings.
You say this is new, but in many ways we've known it all along, haven't we?
Absolutely. It's really a reawakening to these ideas—and that's because they're embodied in the whole reform and restructuring movement, with its emphasis on site-based management and collaborative decision making. If you're sitting around a table where principals and teachers have equal votes on matters of curriculum and instruction, it doesn't make much sense to walk down the hall and do a classroom observation in which the teacher has virtually no role.
Now, you put this all together and people are saying, "There's got to be a better way to do this. Evaluation of teachers must fit better with what we're asking teachers to do with kids. We ought to be treating the adults in the school at least as well as we treat the kids."
So what are they doing instead? What do some of these new models look like?
The first area in which things are really changing is how we work with beginning teachers. Some of this is based on the research on experts and how they develop their expertise over time. It's evident that probationary or non-tenured teachers have some special needs. We can provide them with much better support than they've traditionally had—while making better decisions about them. This requires much more intensive involvement with alternative sources of data such as multiple observations, journal writing, and artifact collections. These approved activities are then accompanied by a strong mentoring program and mandatory staff development focused on basic teaching skills. Altogether, someone needs to provide at least 10 to 14 hours of contact time with these beginning teachers each year over their one, two, or three years of probation.
How much of that is concerned with the teacher behaviors you said are no longer the major focus of some evaluation programs?
Well, we're talking now about beginning teachers, for whom those skills are important. I continue to see evidence that to be successful, teachers must have a set of basic teaching skills, and we pretty much know what they are; we can thank the effectiveness researchers and Madeline Hunter for giving us that strong foundation. An important part of these beginning teacher programs is determining whether teachers have the minimal skills needed to put them on tenure.
So that work is valid ....
It's still valid, right ....
But maybe it's like phonics in reading. Just so people don't think that's all there is to it.
I wonder whether another big issue in programs for beginning teachers isn't finding the time to give them the attention they need. Knowing what should be done is one thing, but solving the logistical problems and actually doing it is another. Are these plans actually being put into practice?
Yes, I'd say they are. We're involving tenured teachers, and we're finding ways to relieve principals from having to do it all.
Let's talk about that.
Beyond the intensive work with beginning teachers we've been talking about, most districts are creating what might be called a professional growth track for all tenured, experienced teachers—and this is where we're seeing some of the biggest changes. These programs are usually built around some version of individual goal setting, based on the recognition that it's absolutely essential for people to set their own goals. But what we used to call individual goals are now often referred to as professional development plans—long-term projects that teachers develop and carry out. Once a teacher is in this professional growth track, it's assumed that he or she is meeting all of the basic expectations of the district.
Is it safe to make that assumption?
Well, it's backed up, of course, by the ordinary daily interaction between teachers and administrators—not by required observations, where every year or two an administrator used to visit a class and render a summative judgment. These districts have eliminated those mandatory observations entirely.
That's not an easy change to make.
No, but administrators tell me, "We know who is doing good work and who's not." I mean, the easiest part of evaluation is identifying bad teaching. They can do that through daily contacts with teachers, hearing teachers talk and parents talk, and being in and out of classrooms for a variety of reasons.
The individual goal-setting approach doesn't sound so different from what you were advocating in the early '80s.
Right. A major difference, though, is the way folks are going about it. For example, once the goals are established, they become goals of the teacher and the administrator. It's not that they're the teacher's goals and the administrator's job is to monitor the teacher; now the teacher and administrator work on the goals together. And at the end of the year or whatever the time frame is, the two sit down with their notes, with the data they've gathered, and together they write up what's been accomplished, their reflections, and where they're going next. There are no summative write-ups, no ratings, no evaluative commentary.
So it's just a progress report.
That's the idea. Now, the next step—the next generation of models—comes from schools where teachers have said, "Hey, we're doing so many things in teams now, why couldn't we do this in a team rather than individually?" So in most of these districts you can now put a team together, if you prefer, and develop a professional development plan for the team. And once administrators agree to the plan—and about 80 percent of the time they do agree to it—they tend to become facilitators, coaches, resource providers. They meet with the group once or twice a year for progress reports and to help in any way they can: to collect data, or to provide resources or substitutes so that team members can attend team meetings or workshops to accomplish their plan. The nice thing about putting administrators into a coaching, facilitating role is that it lets them spend more of their time working with probationary teachers.
Typically the plan is updated now and then, and at the end of one, two, or three years, there's generally some product. In one district I've been working with, four or five primary grade teachers came together and said, "We'd like to develop an ungraded classroom program. In two years we'll put this together, get the training, and write the curriculum." Teachers may do peer coaching. They can do action research projects or curriculum development. They might develop a workshop for other teachers. And when they've done it, they meet again and plan something different—so everybody is involved in a professional development plan all the time.
It's a very different way for a school district to think about its relationships with teachers, especially its tenured staff. Many times the professional development teams are the same teams that are already established: grade-level teams, interdisciplinary teams, interdepartmental teams—so they're not being asked for another layer of work. They can use improvement projects they're already involved in.
As they make their plans, are they expected to consider the goals of the school?
Yes. If professional development is to have the impact it should, you can't have everybody doing whatever they want; there's got to be focus. Particularly if there is a product involved or resources are needed to carry out the plan, it has to mesh with building or district goals.
What you're describing sounds similar to what's going on in some of the best corporations in the world. What troubles me is that, with the resources available and with the demands on people's time, educators have great difficulty living up to what we all believe ought to happen, both in the classroom and out. How widespread are the practices you're describing? Surely at this point you're talking about leading school systems, not typical ones.
Based on the contacts I've had and the places I've been, I'd say there are probably 150 school districts that are into this actively, that as many as a thousand others clearly could be moving in this direction. Some of them feel that because of local traditions and public expectations, they can't go all the way at once. So, using the quality school concept and the ideal of continuous improvement, they begin with individual goal-setting for a couple of years, expecting to go to team planning later on.
With the approval of the board of education?
Yes. When board members understand what we're trying to do, they accept it. At first they want to know, "When are these people being evaluated?" Well they're being evaluated all the time.
You're saying that, in the leading districts you've been working with, you've been able to convince local boards of education and maybe even state legislators looking over their shoulders that the systems you're describing have their own kind of accountability.
That's right. We'll guarantee accountability, but don't make us build an evaluation system for those one or two bad eggs. Let's build a system for the 98 percent of teachers who are going to be there for life. But this system does ask the board and the superintendent to trust the principals and teachers that when there's a problem they'll take care of it. That's why we have the third track, the assistance track.
Let's hear about that.
From time to time, anybody can experience some difficulties. So if the administrator, moving in and out of classrooms and working in the building, feels there may be a problem, he or she has the right to talk with the teacher and set up a classroom visit.
Now, this provision is not a secret from the staff at all; everyone knows there is the possibility of such an intervention. If the problem is serious enough, the teacher will be placed in the assistance track: an in-house, good-faith effort to show that the people in the district care about the teacher and want to help before any kind of legal action is even considered
A lot of the districts I'm working with are designing assistance plans with several levels. At level one, the teacher and the principal or other supervisor try to work it out together, maybe through classroom visits and coaching. If that's not enough, the plan provides for establishing teams, composed mostly of other teachers, who begin to work with the teacher.
Teachers are accepting that idea?
Yes, and they're feeling pretty good about it. Teacher unions, too. Some of the schools I've worked with are in Michigan and New York, very strong union states, and we've been very successful in getting their cooperation. In maybe 20 percent of the districts, the association or union takes the position that teachers would rather not get involved, but about 80 percent of them say, "Sure, we'll help out as long as we don't have to provide any evaluation information," which of course they don't. All they're expected to do is help the teacher; the administrator continues to do the evaluation.
When I asked earlier about intensive support programs for beginning teachers, you said the administrator doesn't have to assume the entire burden. What role might teachers in the professional growth track play in that effort?
Several districts have reported to me that teams of experienced teachers have taken responsibility for running a 12-14 hour class for their beginning teachers. In another district, teams put together a mentoring program.
As you know, the first year of teaching is pretty intensive, plus it's the best time for schools to make decisions about retention. But once teachers are into their second or third year of probation, they're probably ready to join the regular professional growth teams, even though they're still in the beginning teacher track. Including them in the teams helps induct them into the culture of the school as a whole.
Ideally, teachers in their first and second years should have a reduced load?
In the best of worlds they would. Unfortunately, we're not going to see it.
We have to be realistic. This plan provides for teachers to work together more actively than in the past. Some people say to me, "Why not just make it all peer evaluation?" Well, I get into schools a lot, and I'm convinced that the administrator has to be involved in this process.
No matter how much we've heard about peer coaching, I haven't seen any increase in the amount of peer coaching going on. It just isn't happening, particularly in middle, junior, and senior high schools. Part of it is just time and energy, and the logistics of getting teachers released to visit each other, to work together. So I'm finding that it works for the administrator to be responsible for getting the group together, for assisting the team in building their plan, for being available to coach and encourage.
A lot of districts are moving their staff development money to the building site. Where schools have a plan like this, the principal can use the money to support the work of the professional development teams. That makes the evaluation program and the staff development program part of the same system.
And that's what so exciting. I don't see this as just having a committee design a better evaluation plan. I see it as part of something much bigger: a movement to reexamine what the school stands for and how we express that to the adults who come to work there every day. We can't pride ourselves on individualizing instruction for students and then treat all adults exactly alike. We can't press teachers to develop alternative sources of assessment to get richer pictures of kids' performance and then evaluate teachers the same way we did in 1950.
The key factor, it seems, is getting beyond the individualism and isolation from other adults that has characterized teaching for generations.
Absolutely. I'm seeing more collaboration, more collegial conversation than ever before in the 25 years I've been working in schools. And as a result, despite what some people think, schools are getting better—a lot better.
Not every teacher is changing, of course, but even very traditional teachers are doing traditional teaching better, because they recognize the need for more active student involvement, more imaginative approaches to assessment. Real change is happening in the schools—and the new approaches to teacher evaluation I've been talking about are a natural part of it.

Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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