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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

How Teachers Are Reshaping Evaluation Procedures

Through union negotiation or an increasing sense of collegiality, teachers are gaining more say—and better help—in their evaluations.

Instructional Strategies
When I was a middle school teacher in Michigan, my fellow team teachers used the code “The ghost walks.” My Maine graduate students tell me that teachers send notes that read “Stand and Deliver!” These pass-along messages, routed down corridors, into faculty lounges, and beneath classroom doors, quietly and efficiently notify teachers that the principal—or some other supervisor—is leaving the office to conduct surprise evaluations.
Whether announced in advance or sprung on teachers without notice, teacher evaluations are an annual ritual in most schools. For the most part, principals consider evaluating teachers a tiresome chore, one that takes an enormous chunk of time from their busy schedules. Teachers aren't enthusiastic about evaluations either. Most teachers report that they dread seeing their principal come into their classroom carrying a clipboard.
But these practices and attitudes may be slipping into history. At least that's what I found as I collected and read more than 100 journal articles, reports, and other materials about current trends in teacher evaluation. What's prompting schools to retool the evaluation process? One reason is that many schools deep into restructuring are designing evaluation systems to fit with new theories of classroom teaching and learning. Another is that more and more teacher unions are bringing the subject of teacher evaluation to the bargaining table.
That's precisely the story in the Elmira City School District in upstate New York. Its new teacher evaluation system—designed collaboratively by teacher union officials and district administrators—reflects years of instructional improvement programs as well as many rounds at the negotiating table.
Despite plenty of wrangling over the form and substance of the new process, teachers and administrators didn't argue that the time had come to update the teacher evaluation system. The district had clung to basically the same system for decades. But after investing over $2 million in staff training to improve classroom instruction—more than 600 staff were trained in the Elements of Effective Instruction and Clinical Supervision—both teachers and administrators realized the old evaluation checklists no longer made sense. A veteran elementary principal remarked, “I once wrote down whether bulletin boards were neatly done; now I'm looking at a teacher's anticipatory set and closure.”
The district and union bargaining teams eventually signed an amendment to the master contract that outlined procedures for a two-year field test. The amendment required the district to hire an independent research consultant to monitor and review the pilot program. For me, leading the pilot review was an opportunity to revisit a long-standing interest in curriculum and instruction in school district master agreements.
To begin the Elmira City School District's review, I examined current teacher evaluation practices being used across the United States. Then, against that backdrop, I began to systematically study the processes and documents used in Elmira.

Change Through Contract Negotiation

As I proceeded with my nationwide survey of teacher evaluation practices, I wasn't surprised to find evidence that teacher unions are pressuring school officials to update and improve evaluation systems. Nor was I surprised to find that teachers are becoming more involved in planning and monitoring their own evaluations. Teachers, it seems, aren't accepting the “one judge, one jury” evaluation from a principal any longer.
Some grievances I collected during my search show that teachers have good reason to seek more control over evaluations. In several cases, principals have reprimanded, even denied, teachers tenure based on a simple “walk through” observation. In one incident, a principal in a midwestern junior high school roamed through classrooms on the pretense of checking thermostat readings; back in his office, he wrote scathing reports that he used to take away teachers' departmental chair positions and other extra-pay duties.
Teacher unions also want to protect their members from being judged on just one model of teaching. Teachers who work in buildings where principals define the boundaries of acceptable methods and materials are likely to strive for more say in what and how they teach and in how evaluations will be conducted. When teachers feel administrators encroach on their “academic freedom,” they turn to the bargaining table to affirm their professional rights through clear-cut contractual provisions.
Perhaps the stickiest problem unions deal with is the firing of teachers. When principals use evaluation reports as evidence to terminate staff, unions often rally to outline specific dos and don'ts for classroom observations. Even though arbitrators almost always find that principals err if they haven't offered teachers chances to remedy below-par performance, many unions aren't waiting for arbitrators to rescue teachers from dismissal. Instead they are aggressively defining new roles and responsibilities for principals in the teacher evaluation process. New restrictions might include limiting when and where teacher observations can be held and what data can be included in a written evaluation.
  • Principals are required to share the forms they'll use to evaluate teachers at a general faculty meeting at the start of the school year. Principals must specify what they intend to emphasize during upcoming observations. They might, for instance, focus on classroom discipline, student achievement, or authentic assessment.
  • Principals must hold preconferences with teachers prior to scheduled classroom observations. The preconference enables teachers to describe special circumstances that might affect the observation, such as having an overload of nonreaders in a social studies class, as well as review plans for the upcoming lesson. At this time, principals must review with the teacher the observation forms to be used for the evaluation.
  • Principals are required to script-tape lessons (write verbatim what they hear and see during the observation). They then attach their written record to the final evaluation report. Principals may only comment on those aspects of the lesson included in the script.
  • Principals must be present in the classroom for the entire lesson to legitimately use the observation for a formal evaluation. This means principals can't miss the beginning or the end of a lesson. Principals may still make casual and unannounced visits to classrooms, but they may not use such observations for evaluation purposes.
  • Principals must share with a teacher everything recorded during an observation. Teachers may challenge or clarify an evaluation by attaching their own written report to the principal's document. In most cases, a teacher's signature on an evaluation report indicates only that the teacher has read and received a copy of the report; it does not mean that a teacher agrees with the evaluation.
While these contractual conditions seem fair and sensible to teachers, they make some principals feel restricted. Some principals maintain they ought to be allowed to pop unannounced into classrooms for observations. Teachers who consistently do a good job should welcome evaluations at any time, they claim. Furthermore, some principals insist that surprise observations are the only way to assure they're seeing a teacher's genuine performance rather than a “dog and pony show” prepared for just one class period.

Voluntary Change

In addition to changes made through contract negotiation, several school districts are voluntarily experimenting with collegial approaches to teacher evaluation. In these districts, efforts to redesign teacher evaluation systems signal changing attitudes on the part of administrators. For one thing, observing and supervising teachers doesn't mean catching teachers off-guard. For another, principals are taking their new roles as instructional leaders seriously; they see themselves as mentors, coaches, and helpers rather than as the sole authority on a teacher's effectiveness.
In schools that are implementing new guidelines for evaluation, whether due to contracts or voluntary processes, principals usually confer with teachers before and after their evaluations. They hold preconferences so teachers can brief them about classroom details and lesson plans, giving them contextual information to help them more accurately conduct evaluations. During postconferences they review the observation report and help teachers reflect on their skills. Principals can then offer tips or resources to teachers who need help with specific problems.
For some principals, classroom observations are “diagnostic windows” where they get to look in on such things as curriculum, resources, teaching styles, and student achievement. When they diagnose a weakness, they lay out plans to remedy the problem. For example, a principal could find a training program for a teacher having trouble dealing with hyperactive children or assign a peer coach to a teacher weak at helping mainstreamed students participate in science labs. A principal might discover that a 5th grade teacher isn't in sync with the school code to treat children with respect or that a 9th grade English teacher doesn't have a clue about pacing a lesson. In cases like these, principals can intervene to help get teachers on track.
Some principals are skillful at promoting a win-win feeling about teacher evaluation. They don't allow observations to become threatening for their teachers, they communicate regularly, and they show genuine regard for teachers' feelings. In some cases, principals will go the extra mile, demonstrating how to group students within a heterogeneous classroom or providing strategies for a teacher who needs help getting a class started promptly.
Even conscientious principals must sometimes work to keep teacher evaluations from becoming tasks to check off, file, and forget. But those who see evaluating teachers as a cornerstone of their work look at the payoff—that careful evaluations invariably translate into helping children learn. Spillover effects, some principals report, include better working conditions and higher staff morale.

Lessons from New York

Having nearly finished with my two-year review of the Elmira City School District's pilot evaluation model, I can say that the most gratifying outcome has been seeing administrators and teachers talk about teaching and learning. Teaching and learning have become the top agenda item at some faculty and building team meetings. Recently when I stopped by a school for a quick visit over coffee, I heard a principal and four or five teachers talking excitedly about experimenting with strategies that correspond to multiple intelligences.
I've also noted other positive changes. Debates and discussions about teacher evaluation abound throughout the district. Should principals use checklists and narratives? Or is a “blank piece of paper” a more appropriate instrument to record observations? What does “commendable” mean? How about “satisfactory” and “not satisfactory”? Should every teacher, even those who are doing a superb job, be expected to work on a “growth plan” in some area? What should staff development focus on for the next three to five years? Should “peer coaches” or “master teachers” work with newly hired staff?
One elementary principal showed me a raft of notes that teachers had written and attached to their yearly evaluations. What was particularly touching, he said, was that even those teachers he had had to “stretch” were grateful for his interest and help. “What I would like to say to other principals,” he mused, “is don't back away from expecting your teachers to do a better job.”
The principals in this district see their roles changing almost daily. But, even though time is still a problem, and they still need to attend to roofs, playgrounds, parents, and fundraisers, they see their most important function as leading instruction. For starters, they're finding that they can take that lead through the teacher evaluation process.

Susan Black has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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