In Search of…Authentic Teacher Assessments

After assessing teachers for seven years—six as an Assistant Principal at two different high schools (Boone HS and Apopka HS), and one year as an Assistant Director at Orange Technical College – Westside Campus, I’ve come to few conclusions…

1. Great teachers are a hot commodity – far more valuable to society than any professional sports sensation or Hollywood star. Just as sports teams seek to attract the best talent in order to help them win championships, so also should schools and districts seek to attract the best talent to help them reach their goals regarding helping students succeed and move in the direction of their dreams. Anyone who doubts the importance of attracting and retaining great teachers can easily clear up any confusion they may have by simply asking any student they know how important it is to have a great teacher in every classroom—teachers make the difference.

2. It is very difficult to take into account all of the great things a teacher brings to the table—regardless of what method or instrument you use to assess a teacher’s ability to effectively instruct his or her students, there isn’t a “check box” for everything they do. As Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

3. The search for the perfect assessment tool may actually drive down the quality of instruction due to the best teachers either 1.) Changing what they are doing in the classroom in order to meet a mandate, or 2.) Changing what they do for a living because they lose their love of teaching. Newsflash – The best teachers can succeed at just about anything they set their mind to do in life…they teach because they love to teach, and we are lucky to have them in the field of education. If you take away that love, all bets are off. Our best teachers not only provide life-changing instruction for their students, but they also provide a tangible vision of what a beginning, or even a “less-than-great”, teacher can become over time. If public schools lose all of their great teachers to private industry or private schools, it’s time to close up shop, because the writing is on the wall.

I’m reminded of a story about a late, great football coach by the name of Chuck Noll. Dick Hoak, a former running back for Noll, joined the team as an assistant coach for the Steelers’ running backs in 1972. The Steelers had just drafted Franco Harris. Coach Hoak described the situation this way, “After one of the preseason games Franco had a great game. We were on the practice field and I’m saying something to Franco, coaching him about something, and after Franco walked away, Coach Noll walked up to me and said, ‘Dick, don’t overcoach him.’ I always remembered that. You see a lot of coaches, they get in that film room and they run that projector back about 10 times and say you should have done this and they forget that guy has a split second to make up his mind. And [Noll] taught me that. He taught me so many things about coaching.” Hoak went on to coach for the Steelers, and Coach Noll, for the next 20 years.

With this story about Franco Harris in mind, at this present time, I fear we are overcoaching the Franco Harris’ of the education world. We have great teachers leaving public education and taking $10,000 pay cuts in order to move to private and charter schools. The main reason they site as to why they are leaving is the “over-coaching” that comes with the micromanaging mandates of the Marzano matrix of teacher evaluations. How we evaluate our teachers does indeed make a difference.

4. The challenges and problems in education are no longer housed at the district level. When the state took over education with the advent of state standardized testing, and then the federal government took over education with the institution of performance pay initiatives and national standards, not only did the decision makers move further away from ground zero in the classroom, but the knowledge base for what’s best for education took a massive dip, and also shifted from those who have committed their lives to educating children, to those who are most concerned with making headlines and getting elected. After working at the district office for two years, and observing how hard people are working to implement what has been handed to them from the state and federal government, I can honestly say that they are doing the best they can, much like the teacher in the classroom is doing the best they can with what has been handed to them from above. Taking your standardized testing, curriculum, and teacher assessment complaints to the district office is no longer relevant, and thus, local control of education has been lost to an unidentifiable system without a face. The implementation of performance pay teacher evaluations, and the extensive use of district benchmark testing are both District decisions that we can influence at the local level.

5. The amount of time and money that are being spent on increased teacher accountability in order to smoke out the “bad” teachers of the education world would be better spent at the front end in the form of higher salaries that would attract the best teaching candidates that the university system has to offer. By handling the problem at the front end, bad teachers may never get a second interview for their first job. The amount of money that is being spent on developing tests, grading tests, training teachers to grade tests, professional development for teachers to master the requirements of teacher assessments and standardized tests, curriculum to help students master testing requirements, summer conferences by the same people producing the new teacher evaluation system, new books produced yearly by the same people who developed the new teacher evaluation system, and on and on and on. Dump all of that money into higher teacher salaries and you will attract better teachers and you won’t have to come up with a multi-billion dollar system to tell you what you already know. The old adage, “You get what you pay for!” holds true in the field of education, and higher quality goes hand-in-hand with higher pay.

6. My last conclusion—I could go on forever...but I won’t—is that one should never complain about something unless one is also willing to offer alternatives and solutions. I hear a lot of people who voice disagreement and disgruntlement, but if you don’t focus your energies on finding something better, something more authentic, then we are simply spinning our wheels in the mud of educational reform. We must spend as much energy on finding a solution as we have expended on explaining the problem. If educators don’t participate in the conversation and develop an authentic assessment system for their line of work, others will step in and provide a system that may certainly be based on research and data, but may not be based on reality. It would be nice to come up with a system that doesn’t benefit private testing companies, book publishers, education conference arrangers, or former government officials who have learned monetized their passion for educational reform.

With this last conclusion in mind, I would like to present a few ideas I've gathered during my own quest to find more authentic teacher assessments.

Alternative Teacher Assessment Ideas

1. Student Evaluations (This is more applicable for high school students.) The students are the ultimate customers. Have students fill out an evaluation at the end of every quarter about the product they are receiving. This would provide valuable feedback for the teacher, and it would also give administrators a view from ground zero. Administrators can spend more times in the classrooms where the customers aren’t satisfied. Students already provide evaluations for teachers at the college level on the website Rate My Teacher. After one year in college, my daughter made the comment that the ratings and comments that students made about the teachers she has had seemed right on. Students who make vindictive comments against a teacher can easily be discovered by the fact that their ratings are out of line with the vast majority of the class. In such a case, the computer will downgrade the weight of such a student if they are continually out of step with the majority of the students who are in a class.

2. Parent Evaluations. This would also work much like the student evaluations. Parents can speak to items and issues that they have encountered, both good and bad. Some parents are obviously biased and may be slightly crazy, and those kinds of things will come out in the wash. Ultimately, the parent is a customer, and their perspective should be considered. If a significant percentage of the parents of the students in a particular classroom make mention of similar problems, these are things to address and work to improve.

3. Peer Teacher Evaluations. This idea would include the opportunity for teachers to observe and evaluate each other. Experienced teachers can give spot-on evaluations of beginning teachers—including helpful hints for problems and challenges they observe. Beginning teachers should be able to return the favor and evaluate experienced teachers—hopefully, what they observe will be good, and also beneficial for their own teaching. Observations and assessments are meant to both evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher’s instruction, and also to help a teacher improve. I can think of no better way than to tap into the expertise of an experienced teacher. This type of evaluation also lends itself to the opportunity of a teacher giving credit to another teacher for all that they add to a particular department in terms of resources, collaboration, encouragement, knowledge and mentoring. These factors should come into play when we talk about assessing a teacher and determining their right to performance pay.

4. Cameras in Every Classroom. Put a camera in every classroom and make the video feed available to both the parents of the students, and also to the administrators at the school. Obviously, this would be the best way to evaluate what is actually happening in the classroom, but it is also an invasive method that would scare off most teachers, so don’t expect teachers to work for the same pay if this method of assessment were implemented. Some schools already have this feature, and the reasoning is, “If something is going on in that classroom that shouldn’t be going on, then everyone needs to know about it, and something needs to be done…now!” My guess is that this will happen across the board at every school in the future for liability reasons. What I would like to see, in the meantime, is for performance pay to be tied to adding a camera to a willing teacher’s classroom, and if what the teaching is selling is worth it’s weight in gold, then the teacher should be paid accordingly. The videos can then be used for professional development for both beginning and also “not-so-great teachers”—there’s nothing like professional development that is tied directly to what you are doing every day. The best professional development that a teacher can engage in isn’t found in a book or at a conference, it is probably down the hall in the classroom of a dynamic teacher. As a profession, the education field has not properly valued or tapped into the best in our business.

5. Trust Administrators. Trust administrators to evaluate teachers. In the perfect world, administrators would care about their school—their kids, their teachers, their parents, and their school community—and they would want the very best for them. I’ve been told that at one of the most expensive private schools in the area, evaluations and assessments aren’t even required. If you aren’t getting the job done, you get called to the administrator’s office and you are told, “Your services are no longer needed at this school.” End of story. If you were a great teacher getting the job done, the students and parents would complain, and the administrator would be called to the office and questioned. If it was found that he got rid of a teacher for reasons that were unacceptable, such as personal grudges and the like, he would hear the all too popular line, “Your services are no longer needed at this school.”

6. Administrators as Teachers. Every administrator should teach at least one class. You cannot be an instructional leader if you cannot teach. Teachers find it simply amazing that administrators that weren’t very good as teachers are holding positions of evaluating them—this is probably why it is best for an aspiring administrator to become an assistant principal at a school other than where they recently held a teaching position. The best teachers at every school will always feel this way, and rightfully so. But it should be remembered that even the best of athletes still need to be coached, just don’t “overcoach” them. Administrators could gain immense power on a campus if they could say, “Come watch what I am doing.” Department Chairpersons have traditionally been the instructional leaders on campus because of this very fact. If administrators had this kind of daily experience—teaching their own class—they would be far less likely to hold feet to a fire that isn’t cooking up the desired results that the school is shooting for. Administrators would focus on what truly makes a difference, and they would know what makes a difference because they would still be on the front lines putting strategies into practice. Teachers will listen to an administrator that knows what they are talking about, as demonstrated in their own classroom. The teaching profession was never meant to be a profession of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Another added benefit to this plan of action is the development of a system for administrative evaluation—if an administrator can’t teach or manage their classroom, they would be called to the office and told, “Your services are no longer needed at this school.” I know some would say there simply isn’t enough time for this type of arrangement. Well, I would have to respond that the Marzano Observation System is supposed to take up more than 50% of an administrator’s daily allotted time on the clock—many would argue that there isn’t enough time for the Marzano system either.

7. Class Registration Numbers. Guidance Counselors have always known the names of the best teachers on campus—a simple scan of the teachers that every student on campus wants as their teacher will tell you who is getting the job done. There must be a performance pay system that could take this data into account. If there was ever an issue that needed a data-driven decision, it would be the issue of deciding how to best take care of these highly sought after teachers. The fact of the matter is this, these teachers are what make a school great, and they should be recognized in some monetary fashion. On the other hand, if students don’t want to sign up for a teacher’s class, there’s obviously a problem that may need extra administrative attention. Once again, administrators already know who the great teachers are on campus, and they also know who the “less-than-great” teachers are—it doesn’t take a multi-billion dollar system to reveal something everyone already knows. The question is providing data and documentation—class registration numbers can certainly help in those areas

8. AP Testing Assessment. Another way to assess teachers is to have an end-of-the-year test and pay teachers a certain amount for every student that passes the test. Teachers receive $50 per student that passes their AP test currently, up to $2000, or something like that. This type of arrangement creates a partnership between the teacher and their students—they are both on the same team, seeking the same goal. AP teachers put in a lot of extra time getting their students ready for their subject area AP tests. One of the best AP US History teachers I’ve ever supervised would willingly give up his lunch time and planning period in order to accommodate students who wanted to watch subject area videos in his classroom—these videos would help build up his students’ background knowledge of the subject area, and I’m sure it also added to the team mentality—they were all in it together. I love Stand and Deliver, a movie based on a true story about a high school teacher, Jaime Escalante, and his work to help his students of Eastern Los Angeles succeed in school by challenging them to excel in mathematics. He had a goal of his students taking AP Calculus by their senior year of high school. He had his students taking summer classes and Saturday help sessions in order to prepare for the exam. Ideally, the team spirit that is created in an AP environment should be what occurs in all of the classrooms of a school. Obviously, not every student comes to the table of education ready to eat, so there would definitely have to be a way to adjust any kind of assessment and performance pay done in this fashion. Maybe the current system of End of Course exams will morph into something like this—this remains to be seen.

9. FPMS and Professional Growth Plans. Many teachers would refer to this alternative system as the “Good Old Days”. The Florida Performance Measurement System consisted of two columns—one for the positive actions of the teacher, and the other for the negative actions of the teachers. Administrators were tasked with the job of keeping track of each instance of various behaviors such as beginning instruction promptly, handling material in an orderly manner, orienting students to classwork, maintaining academic focus, giving instructions and conducting a review. Some of the negative behaviors were delaying the start of instruction, allowing talking unrelated to the subject, allowing students to call out answers, posing multiple questions, posing non-academic questions, posing procedural questions and ignoring students or responding with sarcasm, disgust, or harshness. Some of my favorites included "uses loud, grating high pitched, monotone, or inaudible talk"; "frowns, deadpan or lethargic"; and "extends discourse and uses general nonspecific praise". I must admit that using that particular system was a pain for me. I had to add so many comments at the bottom of the assessment just to make the observation meaningful. The FPMS system was used for all teachers that had not yet received tenure. Tenured teachers had the choice between doing a Professional Growth Plan, or using the FPMS system. Most experienced teachers used the Professional Growth Plan for their assessment, which meant they did not receive a formal observation during the school year. The Professional Growth Plan would typically include something the teacher would focus on in order to improve their instruction or reach a specific goal. The teacher would develop an action plan of what they were going to do in order to reach their goal or grow in a certain area—such as being a part of a book study, attend a conference, take a college course, or become part of a group of teachers implementing a new strategy together. Teachers gravitated to the opportunity to grow without being formally observed. The system was great for great, conscientious teachers, but it did little to motivate the “less-than-great” teachers to improve. This system was also great for the lazy administrator that wanted to simply call in their teachers at the end of the year and have them sign on the dotted line. And so we find ourselves where we are today, with a multi-tiered system of teacher accountability designed to smoke-out both the weakest and best teachers among us.

10. Scour the Nation – I believe that the School Board, along with the School District, should be scouring the nation to find a teacher evaluation system that has found the favor of both a School District and its classroom teachers. The teacher evaluation system we are currently using is not working…it is driving great teachers away from public education. When teachers are willing to take a $10,000 pay cut in order to work at a private or charter school, a serious problem exists. School Board members should be very concerned with our current system. Here’s an article about the Impact teacher evaluation system that is used in Washington D.C. I am not saying that this system is perfect, but it does provide some valuable insight for the search for a more authentic system to evaluate a teacher’s overall effectiveness in their classroom.

A Call for Ideas…

It is at this time that I would like to call for the ideas of others. I believe in the concept of “group genius”. Together we are much smarter than we all are individually. Great ideas and systems are typically the result of knowledgeable people coming together to bounce ideas off of each other. Please respond with your ideas about how teachers can receive an authentic assessment of their instructional effectiveness.

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Matthew J. Fitzpatrick, Non-Partisan, for Orange County School Board Chair


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