“Ms. Avalos, tell me I’m right!” Darrien and his lab group crowd my desk. “But it doesn’t make any sense,” argues Jocelyn, “Why would it go up?” My students are in the middle of a physics lesson on graphs of motion and are using sensors to act out the graphs they see on their handheld screens. I am following their every move, recording the class for my submission for a teaching award. Six weeks later, I got the good news: I’ve been named my district’s secondary science teacher of the year.
On the same day I learned of my award, I received an evaluation from my supervising principal. It was the lowest appraisal of my career. How can a teacher simultaneously earn accolades by one standard yet mediocre marks by another? The answer lies in how we conduct teacher evaluations in Texas.
Teachers like me are evaluated on their ability to plan, implement, and monitor students completing lessons, but what makes one teacher’s score higher than the next is neither inspiring nor fair. High scores on an evaluation can either indicate superior teaching ability or an easy-going evaluator.
Educators at low-performing campuses are unlikely to have as high of scores as teachers at schools with good mentoring programs, training opportunities, and a positive atmosphere.
An evaluation system riddled with problems is one reason why teachers like me consider leaving the field, but there are steps we can take to improve how we evaluate educators in our state.
First, we need to cut down on the scope of teacher evaluations. Teachers have a plethora of skills that are reviewed with each observation, including questioning techniques, differentiating for different types of students, and managing behavior. The number of skills in question during each evaluation can be overwhelming for teachers. By limiting observations to certain classroom skills each year, we could lighten the burden and give those being evaluated more focused goals to work on. For example, we could allow new teachers to concentrate on improving behavior management in their first year of teaching. As their skills improve, they could shift their growth to increasing student engagement, teaching with cooperative groups, or meeting the needs of diverse student populations.
Second, we should use different criteria for different disciplines and levels of expertise. A novice teacher needs to be evaluated differently than an experienced one. Likewise, a special education teacher should not be assessed on the same scale as an AP Calculus teacher. We need to consider content and experience differences when it comes to creating the next system of teacher evaluations, and we need to be sure those systems are relevant to the type of students the teacher works with.
Finally, we need to focus on pathways for growth so that every teacher has the opportunity to become highly effective. The 2019 House Bill 3 authorized the creation of the Teacher Incentive Allotment for districts to “reward and retain their most effective teachers''. This program’s large monetary incentives for top performers might seem a promising solution to high turnover in schools, but it relies heavily on evaluations to determine teacher effectiveness. My district, Fort Worth ISD, will begin awarding teacher designations in 2023, but without teacher buy-in on evaluations and sufficient opportunities for professional support, we will continue to see teachers throw in the towel, and that high turnover will negatively affect students and schools.
My teaching award will always be a high moment for me, and my evaluation a low one, shedding light on a problem in our school systems. If Texas wants to entice more educators to stay or join the field, then we need to prioritize teacher growth and happiness. I hope we learn to honor deserving teachers for their dedication with an evaluation system that is fair, consistent, and recognizes true teaching excellence.
Jamie Avalos teaches physics at O.D. Wyatt High School in Fort Worth. She is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.