Teacher accountability is the holy grail of education buzz terms; its solutions remain elusive and discussing it seemingly incurs more incinerating debate than feasible forward progress. Recently, several
longtime teachers proposed their
own ideas for accountability systems, mostly moving away from one of the current reforms in motion: tying student growth to teacher evaluation. What’s lost in this debate is the important role observation plays in a teacher’s evaluation: Principals or other administrators stop in, observe a classroom multiple times a year, and rate a teacher on what they observe based on a rubric. Yes, this is a subjective measure—and potentially arbitrary, depending on the skill of the observer and the time devoted to the process. And yes, it is a narrow window from which to view a teacher’s practice. But it doesn’t have to be. This is exactly why it is critical to pair the qualitative observations of teacher practice with quantitative measures of student outcomes to meaningfully evaluate teacher effectiveness. First and foremost, standardized testing is not the only way to measure a student’s ability. It should only be used as a portion of teacher evaluation—which is the case across the board. There is not one state that requires schools to evaluate teachers based only on student learning gains. Still, it is one of the only objective ways to measure whether a teacher is effectively helping students learn. It’s imperative that we use this information, otherwise we might not have much information at all. If students are never tested, how will we know if they’re learning? Consider
Tennessee’s new accountability reform, in which student performance only accounts for 35 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. Furthermore, teacher accountability is tied not to student performance but student growth. If students are not growing in a class, then, quite simply, a teacher is not doing her job. Yes, students grow at different rates and in different ways, but they should, at the very least,
be growing and there should be evidence of it. We know that progress
is possible. Those who say it isn’t have not seen the proof points, or perhaps don’t want to put in the work to make it possible (I know firsthand teaching is absurdly difficult, for those who haven’t tried it). Many of the most impressive student growth results come from schools whose hours are extended and whose material is incredibly rigorous, giving students more opportunities and longer days to grow more, among other techniques. In what other jobs are people not rewarded based on their performance—both the quantifiable and qualitative measures? Managers are evaluated and compensated in large part based on their influence of and the performance of those they manage. Why shouldn’t the same be true for teaching? There will always be outliers and challenges, but it should still be a portion of the evaluation. In addition to testing, observation and feedback should continue to play a crucial role. And principals should be given the time and tools (training and a sophisticated rubric) they need to do this work thoroughly and fairly—so that teachers experience this process as a learning opportunity, not as a random gotcha moment on a potentially off day. In my first year of teaching, I had an administrator in my classroom for no more than 90 minutes in my entire first year. This does not lend itself towards effective evaluation. However, I’ve spoken to principals who observe and debrief with each teacher once a week, and other teachers who shared that an administrator was in their classroom nearly every other week. If the system is not set up for teachers to be efficiently evaluated now, then the system needs tweaking. A principal or administrator must truly understand the context of each classroom, and this can only happen by spending more time in classrooms. A teacher should not go an entire year with only one or two brief formal observations. That’s simply not acceptable, and is not good for teachers or students. Frequent and meaningful observation results in a more comprehensive and holistic evaluation, and it is possible. I’ve talked with teachers at both traditional and charter schools from Colorado to New York to Tennessee. They have had varying experiences with administrative observations, and they know schools can prioritize quality observations if they choose. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Even with all the noise about this issue, too many teacher evaluation systems still are not doing a good job at identifying which teachers excel at making their students soar and which ones still need a lot of support to truly be effective. We’re not going to get better until we improve on teacher accountability and evaluation systems that tie student growth to frequent, meaningful observations.
Liz Riggs is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.