Never Diet Without a Bathroom Scale and Mirror: The Case for Combining Teacher Evaluation and the Common Core

Thomas J. Kane

Given the nature of the job, school superintendents are master jugglers.  Even so, implementing new teacher evaluation systems has been a massive challenge for many of them, because of the demands such a system places on principals, the strain it exerts on labor relations, the inherent difficulty of creating a new vocabulary to describe effective teaching, etc.  I understand these challenges; I experienced many of them while directing the Measures of Effective Teaching Project for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Nevertheless, it would be a huge mistake to abandon those efforts as other challenges, such as the Common Core, loom.  Far from being a “dead end” (as asserted by Marc Tucker in Education Week recently), better teacher evaluation systems will be vital for any broad reform effort, such as implementing the Common Core. 

After so many years of half-measures, we no longer recognize education reform for what it is—a massive adult behavior change exercise.  We can change textbooks, shrink class sizes, publish test scores, and build new buildings, but unless we change what adults do every day inside their classrooms, we cannot expect student outcomes to improve.  Yet, as anyone who has ever tried to lose five pounds or to be a better parent or spouse knows, adult behavior change is hard work.  And it simply does not happen without regular feedback.  When the current attempts to implement new teacher evaluations fall short—as they certainly will, given the long history of box-checking—we must improve them. 

Does anyone believe that simply describing new standards, providing new textbooks and showing videos of successful instruction will be sufficient to change teaching?  Would anyone expect that an analogous strategy—e.g. showing videos of healthy people exercising and smiling over their salads—would be enough to reduce smoking or shrink waistlines?

Teaching to higher standards involves much more complex behavior change than simply putting down one’s fork before dessert.  And it will be more difficult to achieve.  Those who propose “more investments in professional development” as an alternative to teacher evaluation are posing a false choice.  Investing in professional development without an evaluation system in place is like launching a Weight Watchers group without any bathroom scales or mirrors.  It wouldn’t work.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, professional development hasn’t worked in the past. 

Although the sheer volume of change is overwhelming, it is, in fact, fortuitous that many states and districts are implementing new teacher evaluation systems as they transition to the Common Core.  Better teacher evaluation systems have been shown to be related to better outcomes for students.  The Common Core is more likely to succeed in sites that are implementing better teacher evaluation and feedback as well.    

Schools should seize this window of transition—when it is safest for teachers to ask for help (and for instructional leaders to offer it)—to completely reinvent the teacher evaluation process.  Now is the time to balance the goal of greater accountability with the goal of collective behavior change.

As a start, curricular teams should do a side-by-side comparison of the new and old standards and identify a few standards—no more than two or three in each grade and subject—to focus on during the upcoming year.  The teams should develop training targeted at those gap standards.  Teachers and their supervisors should be able to describe in detail the changes in instruction required to achieve the new standards.

But that won’t be enough to change behavior.  Schools should focus teacher evaluation and feedback efforts on the specific instructional changes required for the gap standards.  They should schedule classroom observations for the days when the new standards are to be taught.  They should focus post-observation conferences on the adjustments demanded by the new standards. And they should use student performance on interim and end-of-year assessments—especially on the gap standards—to measure progress and to identify and celebrate successes.  Even one successful cycle will lay the foundation for the next round of instructional improvement.

Eventually, schools will need to make other changes to accelerate behavior change.  For instance, sharing notes from an in-person observation may not be the most effective way to give a teacher insight into their own practice.  The teachers who struggle are not noticing student reactions, are not aware of their lesson pacing and are not detecting that they’ve failed to wrap up one topic before they move to the next.  It is neurologically impossible for teachers to remember that which they did not notice in the moment.  Therefore, an observer’s written notes—no matter how carefully scripted—rarely foster higher levels of self-recognition.  When choosing between the observer’s version of events and their own recollection of what happened in class, most teachers (like most humans) will choose the latter. As a result, schools should start experimenting with giving teachers cameras to record their own lessons.  A teacher could submit those videos for formal classroom observations.  In the process of watching their own videos and selecting the ones to submit, they will see their own failings and have an opportunity to correct them.  The video evidence will provide a more concrete foundation for post-observation conferences.  Moreover, choosing which videos to submit will require that they internalize the standards by which they will be assessed.  The videos could have other benefits as well—allowing a principal to time-shift their observations to quieter times of the day or week, providing material to discuss with peers and colleagues, facilitating the use of external experts who may not be on the school site.

Another change would be to include student evaluation and feedback, as some schools have started doing.  Unlike test scores or even a supervisor’s rating, teachers inherently care what their students think.  As long as the questions do not invite a popularity contest, and focus on specific aspects of classroom experience, student surveys would provide another valuable source of feedback to support change.  (For instance, students could be asked to describe the frequency with which teachers asked them to explain their answers or to ground their responses on specific text-based references.)   

The norm of autonomous, self-made, self-directed instruction—with no outside feedback or intervention—is long-standing and makes the U.S. education system especially resistant to change. In most high-performing countries, teachers have no such expectations.  The lesson study in Japan is a good example.  Teachers do not bootstrap their own instruction.  They do not expect to be left alone.   They expect standards, they expect feedback from peers and supervisors and they expect to be held accountable—for the quality of their delivery as well as for student results.  Therefore, a better system for teacher evaluation and feedback is necessary to support individual behavior change, and it’s a tool for collective culture change as well.