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February 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 5

Focusing Teacher Evaluations on Student Learning

Teacher evaluations are most effective when they connect to student achievement and align with professional development and school improvement.

Most states now hold schools accountable for meeting high student learning standards. One way that schools have responded to this challenge has been to invest considerable time and resources in teacher evaluation. But is this investment really improving student learning?
The answer should be yes. Teacher evaluation should improve student learning in the classroom, but how? It must analyze teaching on the basis of what students are learning as well as effectively integrate the teacher evaluation and staff development processes with school improvement. Schools that use teacher evaluation in these ways make good progress in their quest to meet high student learning standards.

Student Learning Connections

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of states and school districts developed teacher appraisal systems that analyzed teaching on the basis of what the literature defined as accepted teaching practices. These systems helped teachers and administrators develop a good understanding of accepted teaching practices. But now, teacher evaluation needs to move beyond analyzing teaching and focus on student learning.
  • Were the objectives of the lesson worthwhile and challenging?
  • Did the teacher treat the students with dignity and respect?
  • To what extent did all students achieve the objectives of the lesson?
Reflecting on these questions captures three crucial aspects of instruction—intents, processes, and outcomes. The first question is particularly important because it addresses current state and national curriculum reform efforts. Unless we design worthwhile and challenging objectives, meaningful learning will not take place. The second question relates to other important characteristics of instruction, such as rapport, motivation to learn, and discipline. The final question addresses student learning, which is the real test of effective instruction. Some teachers and administrators have difficulty with this question, particularly when they do not effectively monitor instruction daily.
Before the postobservation conference, both the teacher and the evaluator reflect on these questions. To the extent that they both answer yes, the lesson was meaningful and productive, the conference can focus on reinforcing teaching practices that contributed to the success of the lesson. To the extent that they answer no, the conference will focus on strengthening teaching practices that will contribute to improved student learning.
  • What students need to know and be able to do,
  • What the teacher can do to foster such learning,
  • How successful the teacher has been in achieving the desired student outcomes, and
  • How the teacher should teach the lesson the next time.
If good teaching requires thinking about these aspects of instruction, then teacher evaluation is a conversation between the teacher and the evaluator about such thinking. Teacher evaluation becomes meaningful because it deals with characteristics of instruction that make sense to both the teacher and the evaluator. Teacher evaluation is productive because it results in recommendations that enhance the quality of teaching and student learning in the classroom.
A math lesson provides a good example of how this approach works. A middle school teacher was teaching her class to add and subtract decimals. The teacher initiated the lesson effectively by using the monetary system as a motivation for students to understand how to add and subtract whole numbers and decimals. The rapport between the teacher and the class was lively as she introduced the rules for addition and subtraction and gave examples to the class. After the instructional segment on addition, students worked in triads on a series of problems. As a class, they corrected their work, and the teacher provided ample opportunity for questions. She used the same procedure for teaching subtraction.
In the postobservation conference, the teacher and her evaluator focused on teaching behaviors related to all three of the crucial questions, but they focused most on the question, To what extent did all students achieve the objectives of the lesson? Although the teacher's monitoring techniques were good, the educators determined that she should review each triad's answers before the overall class discussion. This would take only a few minutes and would provide her with a better understanding of whether all groups were mastering the objectives of the lesson.

Further Alignments

By the mid-1980s, many states had developed teacher evaluation regulations or guidelines. Because states devoted significant resources to teacher evaluation, policymakers began to ask why the students' test scores weren't going up. Although teachers might have been growing professionally, they were growing in so many different ways that the cumulative impact of their efforts was not appreciably affecting student learning, particularly as measured by standardized test results.
Unfortunately, schools had little time to deal with this problem because of the new rhetoric that "our nation was at risk." In the late 1980s, schools enacted new accountability programs that required formal school improvement plans that supported ongoing professional development. A common reaction of school administrators was "Where are we going to get the time to do all of this?" One common response to that question was to integrate the processes of teacher evaluation and staff development with the school improvement plan.
  • Teachers would include more problem-solving activities in teaching mathematics,
  • Students would be involved more actively in the instructional process through using manipulatives and engaging in group projects, and
  • Students would increase their problem-solving ability on district and state performance measures.
This goal set a focus for the school improvement plan as well as for how staff development and teacher evaluation supported that plan. As evaluators conducted classroom observations, they focused on teaching problem solving and its impact on student learning. Teachers began describing how they planned to improve instruction in mathematics as well as what the projected impact of these improvements would be on student learning. Teams of teachers collaboratively developed most professional growth plans. The school met its improvement goal in mathematics: Students' problem-solving scores on district and state performance measures improved dramatically over a three-year period.
The literature on self-renewing schools, schools as learning organizations, and transformational and distributed leadership clearly supports the notion of teachers working in teams to solve their school's problems, making evaluation less threatening. As states make the transition from more individual to more school-oriented accountability models, schools, rather than individual teachers, are held accountable for student learning.
When we integrate the teacher evaluation and staff development processes with school improvement, a whole new option for evaluation emerges. Traditionally, we have prepared evaluation reports for individual teachers each year. An interesting alternative is to have each school improvement team report its accomplishments. This team report would include a description of how the teachers approached the school improvement process, beginning with the team's school improvement goal and the rationale for addressing that goal. The team's plan of action would be followed by documentation of progress on the plan and its impact on the quality of teaching and student learning in the school.
This integrated approach has two components. The first is a continuous school improvement process whereby teachers work in teams to address priority school improvement goals. Teacher evaluation and staff development are integrated into this process. The second component is a series of classroom observations that support the continuing professional growth and development needs of individual teachers. The team reports monitor the progress that teacher teams make on their school improvement initiatives. At the end of the school year, teams share these reports at a staff meeting, and everyone recognizes the teams' accomplishments. Each teacher also receives an individual evaluation report documenting, for accountability purposes, his or her performance, describing what he or she did to strengthen or enhance teaching, and acknowledging the contribution that he or she made to school improvement.
A cautionary note: The health of a school organization is crucial to the success of this integrated approach to improving school learning. Teachers must function as professionals in a climate of respect and trust, communicating their goals. In schools where staff members have not acquired these habits, administrators need to focus both on building a healthier school climate and improving student learning.

Evaluating for Student Learning

A common reaction to the integrated approach is "This sounds good. But it couldn't be teacher evaluation. Where's the bite?" In today's world, we should not build professional employee appraisal systems to fire people. We should build systems to help them develop and increase the productivity of their organizations. In education, productivity means improved teaching and student learning. If, however, we find that a particular teacher is not performing adequately, then we must move that teacher into a more intensive form of evaluation, which could possibly lead to dismissal.
Another reaction to the integrated approach is "Why aren't more schools doing this?" As Joel Barker (1992) would say, it is a paradigm problem. Too many schools are so paralyzed by what teacher evaluation used to be that they resist promising new alternatives. For the most part, schools that have the courage to move in new directions are pleased with the results. Leadership is crucial in changing the paradigm of teacher evaluation.
Kathleen Halligan (1999) took such leadership and implemented the integrated approach in a rural New England elementary school. She provided her teachers with the option of either continuing with their more traditional evaluation process or moving to the integrated approach, where three self-selected teacher teams would address crucial school improvement needs in reading, writing, and mathematics. All teachers chose the integrated approach. Through an in-depth, two-year longitudinal study, she found that teachers developed more ownership for student learning, the quality of their reflective judgment improved, and, yes, the students' scores on the state's basic skills test went up.
Although teacher evaluation can take many forms, the process must focus on student learning. The shift in focus will require professional development for some teachers and administrators, potential changes in school culture, and a commitment to change the nature of the conversations and reports that currently characterize teacher evaluation. We have come a long way by focusing evaluation on the analysis of teaching. Now let's take the next important step by asking, How well are our teachers facilitating student learning?

Barker, J. (1992). The business of paradigms [Videotape]. Burnsville, MN: Chart House International Learning Corporation.

Halligan, K. C. (1999). The impact of collaborative critical inquiry on teacher development. Doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

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