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March 4, 2016

Teacher evaluation systems: Major changes, similar results

Since TNTP’s  groundbreaking report, The Widget Effect, was released in 2009, nearly every state has made dramatic changes to the way teachers are evaluated. In that report the authors found less than 1 percent of teachers were rated below proficient, while nearly all other teachers were rated simply as proficient or satisfactory. Just a small proportion of teachers were recognized for being exceptional. Such results didn’t pass the sniff test. As anyone who has ever stepped foot in a classroom knows, there are a number of exceptional teachers as well as a number who just aren’t making the grade. Under previous teacher evaluation systems, few of these teachers were ever identified.

Despite the dramatic changes in evaluation, such as including measures of student achievement, not much has changed, according to a recent report aptly titled Revisiting the Widget Effect. Less than 3 percent of teachers are being rated below proficient. While this is more than 3 times as many teachers than found in the original Widget Effect, it is still an extremely small number.

Of course, it could be claimed that this is because there are so few ineffective teachers and not due to a failure of how teachers are evaluated. Which is a legitimate argument. In fact, this was a question the authors wanted to examine themselves by asking principals in a sample of schools how many of their teachers they felt were below proficient prior to conducting the new evaluation systems. What they found was a huge disconnect between how many teachers principals perceived to be less than proficient (27 percent) and how many teachers actually were rated below proficient (2.7 percent).

So why are so few teachers identified below proficient? Did states expend valuable time and resources simply to rate a few more teachers as ineffective? While the findings from this report are sobering, it provides important insights for policymakers in making changes to the current systems and understanding how the system is really being used at the ground level. What was fascinating is what principals said about why they didn’t rate some teachers as below proficient.  For example, some principals reported not assigning a below proficient rating to some teachers who were on the borderline because they felt their time was better spent focusing on providing extra supports to the lowest performing teachers. Other principals stated they avoided rating teachers below proficient who showed potential to be effective teachers in the future. While technically these teachers should have received poor ratings, these are actions good supervisors should take to build an effective staff.

Yet, these are examples of why it is imperative to include objective measures of effectiveness in any teacher evaluation system. States now have more flexibility in designing their own evaluation systems with the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They should include objective measures such as student test scores in their revised evaluations. Doing so still provides an opportunity for evaluators, such as the principals in this report, to focus their time and resources on the teachers that need them most. At the same time it lessens the chances evaluators will simply identify nearly all teachers as proficient because it is just easier to do so just as it was prior to 2009 in most states.

What states need to do now is find a proper balance between objective measures and trusting the professional judgment of evaluators, especially principals, who know what is best for the teachers and the students in that school. As the report shows, states have not yet found that right balance. Keep in mind, however, these new teacher evaluation systems are still quite new and will take some time to make the adjustments needed to have a significant positive impact on both teachers and students. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Teacher evaluation,teachers — Jim Hull @ 2:52 pm

February 24, 2016

Teaching may be harder for introverts

Last week a colleague sent me a fascinating article: “Why Introverted Teachers Are Burning Out.” It struck home with me.

I am very much an introvert and understand my own needs for quiet and alone time to re-charge. Yet, for some reason, I had never connected that with my job as a teacher. I didn’t realize that the utter exhaustion I felt at the end of the day may be more acute, or different, than what my extroverted teacher friends felt. Of course, teaching is a hard and tiring job for anyone, but this article completely resonated with me that much of my “burn-out” was due to my introversion. I am using burn-out in several ways here: sometimes you feel it on a Wednesday and can’t believe you have to come back to work the next two days, sometimes it hits in February and you honestly aren’t sure if you will make it until June, and sometimes it results in leaving the profession altogether. The novel idea that teaching is harder on an introvert never occurred to me until reading this article. For those of you who are interested, a simple Google search of “introvert teacher” brought up a plethora of blog posts and tips from introverted teachers on how to survive.

Let me take you through a run-down of a typical day in the life of a teacher:

  • Early morning you walk into the building. You may try to get there early to get some time alone to set up but if there are family obligations or a bad commute you may only have 15-20 minutes before your first class walks in. In that time you need to straighten the desks, write the objective, agenda, and homework on the board, make copies if needed, put your lunch away, get out your attendance and worksheets, and any other tasks that may pop up.
  • Students walk into first period and will often be talking a mile a minute and yelling and joking with their friends. It’s amazing how much energy they can have early in the morning. There will be a constant barrage of questions around last night’s homework, what we will learn in class today, what tonight’s homework will be (yes, this is all written on the board as I reminded them every day when they asked), and some begging to have no homework or no test.
  • The class period will be filled with activity. Sometimes the teacher will be talking and sometimes students will be working in pairs or groups. There is constant noise. You have to pay attention to every student and read body language to see what is happening around the room. You will need to walk around and check in with every group as they work and at the same time keep one ear and eye on all the other groups to make sure they stay on task.
  • When the period ends, you have roughly four minutes between classes to straighten out the room, prepare for the next bunch to come in and do it all over again. Keep in mind that it may take two minutes for the whole class to actually leave the room and many students from the next class will walk in two minutes early so there is no time alone or quiet in between.
  • At some point the teacher will have a period off. You may think this is a good time to re-charge with some quiet time. However, due to space constraints in schools, your classroom will almost always be scheduled for another class and you will get kicked out to the faculty lounge. The faculty lounge will be filled with all the other teachers that have been kicked out of their regular classrooms for the period. Sometimes it is quiet, but often teachers are talking to each other. Or, you have a meeting. There is an endless number of meetings: IEPs, grade level, subject level, evaluations, RTI, etc. Sometimes those meetings take place in the faculty lounge because there is no other space available. So, even if you aren’t in a meeting, there is a good chance you’re listening to a meeting happening a few feet away.
  • Lunch doesn’t bring any relief. It is usually 20-30 minutes and often we have made plans with students to eat their lunch with us so we can get some one-on-one time to go over an issue or re-teach a concept they are confused about. Eating always happens while doing something else.
  • In the afternoon there are more sections of students like were already described.
  • After school brings students that need help or have questions. Or, more meetings.

It’s no wonder I was exhausted at the end of the day and often drove home in complete silence- no radio. There were very few moments in the whole day where I wasn’t talking to someone. Friday nights I could absolutely not handle any plans. I was basically comatose by then and needed the whole night on the couch to get my head to stop spinning.

The article makes a great point that the world is moving towards increasing “social” or group learning. We want our students to work in groups and we expect our teachers to learn in groups. Professional development generally asks teachers to talk in groups about new practices. Grade and subject level meetings have teachers review student data and lesson plans in groups. This is exhausting to introverts who prefer to have time to reflect on their own rather than working out problems verbally.

The article cites lack of awareness, among teachers and administrators, as a problem. I was certainly unaware and I was an introvert myself! It was interesting to look at this issue from an administrative standpoint. If leadership considered the impact of teacher personalities and learning styles there may be ways of making the day more manageable. Lack of space may not be fixed but keeping the need for quiet space in mind may be helpful. Also, professional development could be delivered in many different ways. Introverts may prefer to be part of a book group or have reading assigned to reflect on with their supervisor rather than participating in a group activity. This may not be possible, but it was interesting to consider.

A Forbes article suggested that one-third to half of all people may be introverts. This doesn’t tell us what population of the teaching force are introverts but I would venture there are quite a few. Many people, including teachers-in-training, believe that teaching means they will have their own classroom to be in all day (whether students are there or not). They will be the rulers of this space and when the students aren’t there they have time to reflect on lessons and do their grading. The reality is very different.

It may be important to consider how introversion versus extroversion impacts teachers and students during the day. Teacher retention is a trending topic and is extremely important to maintain effective and veteran teachers. If burnout among introverts is making the profession lose great teachers it is worth looking into. Luckily, as I discovered, there is a wealth of information and resources available online that address this issue.

Filed under: teachers — Breanna Higgins @ 2:03 pm

December 10, 2015

The future of using student achievement measures to evaluate teachers

With the president signing the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law today the days of the No Child Left Behind Act waivers (NCLB) as well as Race to the Top grants (RTTT) have officially come to an end. The elimination of these programs also ends the ‘incentive’ for states to evaluate teachers based, at least in part, on measures of student achievement. Keep in mind, however, over 40 states currently evaluate teachers partially on their students’ achievement.

Less than a decade ago this was far from the case. Prior to NCLB waivers and RTTT only a small number of districts included student achievement measures when they evaluated their teachers.  In fact, a number of states prohibited using these measures in evaluation as a matter of law.

More recently, NCLB waivers and RTTT grants provided ‘incentives’ to include student achievement measures as a significant portion of how teachers are evaluated. In response, the vast majority of states have made significant changes to their teacher evaluation systems. However, developing these new evaluation systems was no easy task. In fact, most states have just recently fully implemented such systems and some are still in the process of doing so.  So it is far too early to tell what impact these new evaluation systems have had on teachers and student learning.

Now that federal ‘incentives’ have been lifted, the question is will the states stay the course when it comes to evaluating teachers or will they shift gears? Of course, only time will tell but with the pushback against testing in a number of states I’m guessing at least some states will change their evaluation system, especially as it pertains to including student achievement measures.

Yet, even if states pull back on linking teachers’ ratings to student performance, these systems are likely to be significantly better than what states had in place prior to NCLB waivers and RTTT. As discussed in our Trends in Teacher Evaluation report, for decades most evaluation systems were little more than a bureaucratic exercise that failed to recognize either excellence or mediocrity in teaching. This is no longer the case. States have vastly improved their teacher evaluation systems in recent years and not just by including measures of student achievement. Nearly every state has vastly improved the way classroom observations are conducted. Now it’s the norm for teachers to be observed every year–in many cases, multiple times a year—and then provided immediate feedback to inform and improve their instruction. Moreover, nearly every state now evaluates teachers on multiple measures even when tests scores are not used. Such indicators include the quality of their lesson plans, feedback from their students, and the quality of their classroom assignments among others. These measures are then combined to provide a more accurate measure of a teacher’s true effectiveness as well as provide valuable information to help teachers improve their instruction.

States and districts have worked extremely hard over the past several years to design and implement these new teacher evaluation systems so it is unlikely they will be going to back to the old days when teachers were evaluated every couple of years and rarely provided useful information. While including objective measures of student achievement like test scores can be a valuable part of an effective teacher evaluation system, the new evaluation systems even without the student link are much more likely to accurately identify effective teachers as well as provide useful information to improve instruction. And that is good news for all teachers and students. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Teacher evaluation,teachers — Tags: — Jim Hull @ 1:42 pm

October 15, 2015

Schoolwork worth doing

“Ok, students, it’s time to get out your crayons!”

Hearing this never fails to delight kindergarteners in the classroom. But what about in seventh grade social studies, even if colored pencils are substituted for crayons?  Outside of art class, does drawing really represent the kind of work middle-schoolers should be doing to get ready for high school?

Analysts for the Education Trust recently examined the quality of classroom assignments in a half dozen middle schools in order to document the degree to which they were aligned to the Common Core’s English language arts standards. The preliminary results were published last month in the report Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards?.

The Ed Trust team was able to identify assignments that were clearly up to the task. But they also found that these were a fraction of what students are being asked to do on a daily basis. According to the analysis, a surprising few assignments were “aligned with a grade-appropriate standard” – 38 percent to be exact. The 7th grade drawing assignment cited above is an example. And the picture is even worse for students in high-poverty schools (31 percent “grade-appropriate”).

The research team examined both in- and out-of-school assignments given by 92 teachers to students grades six through eight over a two week period. Common Core-ELA standards cross subject areas so assignments were collected from teachers of English, humanities, history/social studies and science. The average number submitted per teachers was 17. Altogether the analysts scored nearly 1,600 assignments on such attributes as “alignment to Common Core,” “centrality of text,” “cognitive challenge” and “motivation and engagement.”

The report authors, Sonja Brookins Santelises and Joan Dabrowski, acknowledge that they did not expect to see 100 percent alignment to the higher-level demands expressed in the standards. Indeed, there is a place in the classroom for the occasional quick check of facts or basic skills practice that will help students use these tools more confidently when applied to more challenging tasks. But Santelises and Dabrowski did hope to see more rigor than they found, as follows:

  • 16 percent of assignments required students to “use a text for citing evidence”;
  • 4 percent required higher-level thinking; in contrast, 85 percent asked for either the recall of information or the application of basic skills;
  • 2 percent met their criteria for “relevance and choice”; and
  • not surprisingly given all this, only 5 percent were scored in the high range of the Ed Trust framework.

For me, reading this report was like déjà vu all over again. In the nineties and early aughts, I worked at the Ed Trust as part of a team that helped teachers in high-poverty schools align their lessons and assignments to state standards. During that time I can’t say how often we saw the “movie poster assignment” as the culminating task following a major unit of study. This assignment asks students to create, to draw, a movie poster on the topic as opposed to writing a paper or otherwise have students show their capacity to extend their thinking about the material. Could such an assignment be given occasionally as a break from a routine of academic heavy lifting? Absolutely. But in the schools we worked in, the movie poster wasn’t the exception. Too often, assignments like it were the routine.

Today, as it was then, low-level assignments are not a teacher-led plot to keep kids illiterate. Teachers in many schools struggle to keep their students engaged while keeping up with overstuffed curricular and testing requirements. The problems are exacerbated when students are performing well below their peers. Teachers in such situations often respond by providing lessons in easy bits with the idea that they will eventually build to higher understanding – what educators call “scaffolding.” (I show an example of a scaffolded math lesson on slides 7-13 in a common core presentation you can find here.)  While the practice is sound, Santelises and Dabrowski documented an over-reliance on scaffolding which rarely led to independent learning.

Nonetheless, the fact that 5 percent of the lessons were complex and high-level is cause for optimism. These teachers clearly know what rigor looks like. In addition, because of the short two-week window, the analysts may well have missed out on major end-of-unit assignments that push students’ thinking to higher levels.

The Ed Trust team is continuing its study, which should tell us more about how typical these findings are. In the meantime, school leaders who want to know how well instruction in their schools and district align to higher standards can check out this implementation guide.

October 1, 2015

Diversifying the teaching force

We know many of the qualities that define “good” teachers: subject matter knowledge, credentials, experience, and impact on learning. But according to a growing body of research, this list is incomplete without also assuring the teaching staff resembles the demographic make up of the students they serve. Let’s just say, we have a long way to go.

Our current public-school enrollment is very close to being majority-minority. In 2011-12, 51 percent of public K-12 students were white down from 59 percent 10 years before. In contrast, 82 percent of their teachers were white (see chart). In American cities, where students of color comprise a two-thirds majority, 71 percent of their teachers were white.  A full three-quarters were female.


Across the country, districts are facing teacher shortages, especially in key areas like special education and mathematics. The additional effort to increase the diversity of their staff may seem like making an already difficult job even harder. In its recent report on the subject, the Albert Shanker Institute acknowledged as much, stating that “our first priority must be to ensure that every student has the benefit of being taught by skilled, knowledgeable and caring teachers – of whatever race and ethnicity.” Nonetheless, they further maintain that diversity “should be a factor, and an important one at that.” This is especially so for the education of minority students.

Among the reasons cited by the Shanker Institute authors is that teachers who share a cultural experience with their students are better able to motivate and inspire them, and are less likely to “confuse cultural difference with cultural or intellectual disadvantage.”  The authors also refer to research suggesting that a demographic match between teachers and students improves students’ academic performance.

Evidence for this latter statement received a big boost earlier this year by researchers Anna Egalite, Brain Kisida and Marcus Winters who analyzed the relationship of what they call “own-race teachers” to student achievement. The authors had access to a huge database enabling them to link 92,000 Florida teachers to 3 million students over a seven year period. They tracked the performance of individual students while in classrooms with different teachers by race and ethnicity over several grades, and compared the impact of same-race to different-race assignments. In this way they have produced perhaps the most rigorous study to date of the effect of minority teachers on minority student achievement.

Here’s what they found: students perform higher in math and reading when they are assigned to teachers of the same race. The overall results are small, but statistically significant. There are differences by race, however. The performance of black, white and Asian students were significantly positive in math, but the effects were highest for black and Asian students.

Hispanic students were the exception. For this group of students, having an Hispanic teacher actually produced a negative effect. The researchers conjectured that this finding could be due to limitations in the data. They explain, the Florida Hispanic population is quite large and culturally diverse, including self-described Caribbeans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans. Grouping them into one ethnicity could therefore be masking important differences among them.

As virtually every researcher does, Egalite and her team call for more research to better understand the relationship between teachers and students by race. But for us lay people, the evidence is pretty clear that school districts should pay attention to recruiting a teaching force that is demographically representative of the community alongside their professional qualities.


Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Demographics,teachers — Tags: , — Patte Barth @ 12:42 pm

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