Originally published in the Bedford Citizen
Next week, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will release information on last year’s educator evaluation for every district in the Commonwealth.
Under the New Educator Evaluation System mandated by the DESE, supervisors use descriptive rubrics, classroom observations, and a review of artifacts like lesson plans and student work to give educators feedback and rate them as Exemplary, Proficient, Needs Improvement, or Unsatisfactory.
Those aspects of the new system that we are able to use to promote professional growth have been enthusiastically embraced by the Bedford Public Schools. As teachers and administrators set their annual professional practice goals, and as goals are aligned with district-wide improvement priorities, the system supports individual improvement while simultaneously improving district-wide instructional practices.
However, to date, Bedford has chosen not to give summative ratings of Exemplary, despite our having many exemplary educators, for a few reasons.
First, a joint teacher/administration evaluation committee modified the DESE evaluation rubrics to create Bedford-based rubrics that have a very high threshold for Proficient practice. Examples of our Proficient standard include:
- Subject Matter Knowledge: Demonstrates sound knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and the pedagogy it requires by consistently engaging students in learning experiences that enable them to acquire and construct complex knowledge, understanding, and skills in the subject.
- Well Structured Lessons: Develops coherent lessons with challenging, measurable objectives and appropriate student engagement strategies, checking for understanding, pacing, sequence, activities, materials, resources, technologies, and grouping, and,
- Meeting Diverse Needs: Consistently and effectively uses appropriate adaptive practices, including tiered instruction and scaffolds to accommodate differences in learning needs in order to make challenging curricula available to all students.
Second, a major tenet of the national reform movement that prioritizes “holding teachers accountable through external measures” over building teacher capacity and collaborative school cultures, is the promotion of merit pay for high achieving teachers. When one reads the “Exemplary” rating language, it is clear that this kind of teacher differentiation is intended. While attractive at first glance, merit pay divides the very teachers that schools so need to bring together on teaching teams to analyze student achievement data, problem-solve together and share instructional strategies to improve the learning of all of their students. Great schools have professional cultures that cultivate intellectual risk-taking for students and staff alike. They are learning organizations that are self-reflective, innovative and constantly striving to get better. The collaboration on which they depend requires trust and collegiality, both of which are undermined by pay differentials and their attendant culture of competition and one-upsmanship.
So of the 275 Bedford educators who were evaluated, 97.5% were rated Proficient; .7%, Needs Improvement; and .7%, Unsatisfactory. The 1.1% rated as Exemplary reflect reporting errors as Bedford intentionally withheld that rating. While Bedford is joined by many districts who have similarly chosen not to use Exemplary, many other districts have chosen instead to use it quite liberally. DESE will discourage comparisons across districts, but it is inevitable that the public will do so.
Changes to Come
Beginning this year, educators will use the results of student surveys (and for administrators, teacher surveys) to help shape their professional practice goals. While it is hard to create instruments for our youngest students to give such feedback, we welcome this component of educator evaluation. Constructive feedback can be highly informative. Educator evaluation, as a growth opportunity, can contribute to positive change. And undoubtedly, for those few educators who, despite support, do not grow sufficiently, it can be a critical tool for termination.
However, and here is where it gets trickier, this year we will begin to report as well on what the new evaluation system calls “educator impact”, where we are required to rate the level of each educator’s impact on student learning. While this again may appear helpful at first glance, I would argue that in reality it is counterproductive. The requirement is for each teacher to measure student growth according to two different assessments (MCAS where it is administered) and District Determined Measures (which are common assessments of a district’s own creation or choosing). This is a complex subject worthy of an entire article, but I will give one reason why we find this to be problematic.
Prior to the advent of the new evaluation system, Bedford began the process of bringing teachers together to create common assessments (per grade level or per course) in order to ensure equitable learning experiences for all kids, and to anchor what has become an institutionalized practice of teachers meeting to:
- analyze their students’ performance on these common assessments,
- identify patterns that reveal common areas of difficulty, poorly worded questions, or the need for a change in instruction
- problem-solve together and share instructional strategies
Taking ownership for their own and their colleagues’ students’ success, our teachers are highly motivated to continually improve student learning through this collaborative process of designing, implementing and improving common assessments. This is a dynamic and collegial process that we are working to get ever better at in order to better serve our students. It will be an entirely different dynamic when evaluators turn to this data to measure teachers’ individual impact on student growth. First of all, the variability in students’ skill levels in any particular class creates an unequal playing field. Second, many teachers will want to choose assessments that they know students will do well on rather than using meaningful measures of higher order thinking, challenging problem solving, and the application of understanding. Third, schools are now getting bogged down in time-wasting discussions of their assessments’ reliability and validity, as teacher associations understandably urge a degree of exactitude that would obstruct the in-the-moment adjustments to assessments that we want our teacher teams to be able to make. Finally, the over-reliance on quantitative measures fails to take into account the important impacts that teachers make on students’ creativity, curiosity, inspiration, ability to work with others, and social-emotional health.
Bedford is a district that believes strongly in accountability, and we hold ourselves to a high standard. Quantitative measures help us to identify learning gaps for individuals and for groups of students. We believe that our parents and our community have a right to a broad array of data about their children’s progress. But teaching and learning are too complex to be reduced to a few quantitative measures. And when we try to use these measures to evaluate individual teachers, we instill a level of fear and defensiveness that are destructive to the learning process.
Stay tuned for updates as Bedford wrestles with how best to implement this mandate, even as we work with other districts to push back on those aspects that are not in the interest of children.