Reinventing the Wheel (at a Goodyear Plant)
Yesterday, Amy Slowthower shared her well-earned frustrations about the expensive, tiresome process of developing a new teacher evaluation system for DPS. I feel her pain; there’s nary an aspect of school reform where there aren’t people taking forever and a day to come up with some new plan, and squandering millions of dollars as they dither.
What I don’t understand is why we feel it’s necessary for DPS to come up with a new teacher evaluation system in the first place.
When I first learned about Denver’s teacher evaluation system, I was actually very impressed. The current system identifies five performance standards on which teachers are assessed (instruction, assessment, curriculum & planning, learning environment, and professional responsibilities). Each standard has between three and five expectations to be met, suggested indicators for each expectation, and a rubric to gauge whether teachers are not meeting, developing, meeting, or exceeding expectations for each standard. There is a space for teachers to enter self-comments, and their reflections on how they address each professional standard. There is also a summary of evidence journal administrators are supposed to gather and complete to justify the ratings they give in each area. Before the final evaluation is submitted, teachers and administrators are expected to meet to discuss any discrepancies in their respective perceptions of the teacher’s performance. The meeting also provides teachers an opportunity to offer more evidence (artifacts, student work, input from peers or parents) of what’s going on in their classroom, and receive feedback they can use to immediately improve their practice.
The system isn’t perfect, of course, though as I look over the forms and standards themselves, the only improvement that immediately comes to mind is to differentiate the Comprehensive Performance Rating at the end. Currently, the only options are “satisfactory” and ‘unsatisfactory,” though the information culled from the rest of the evaluation could easily support an overall rating of “not meeting,” “developing,” “meeting,” or “exceeding”, or whatever terms one likes.
The problem isn’t with the system itself, but the people using it.
For instance, on my most recent evaluation, I was meeting or exceeding expectations in all but one indicator under one standard. Yet the evaluator comments are overwhelmingly negative and demonstrably false. In one area where my performance exceeded expectations (assessment), the evaluator comments are similarly inaccurate, and easily disproven with even the quickest glance at my students’ data (yes, that data, that I try not to focus on, and everyone else claims to value so highly!). Several friends of mine have described similar situations at that and other DPS schools. One DPS teacher even told me he was never observed, but the principal just wrote that he “deemed him to be a competent teacher” and didn’t bother to fill out the rest of the document. That evaluation was enough to grant this third-year teacher non-probationary (“tenured”) status. Some principals don’t bother to have the final meeting, others don’t give teachers their documents in enough time to respond…it’s a mess.
Why does this happen? Because overworked (and/or underhanded) principals know they can put just about anything on those forms and it won’t matter– no one is checking up on them. There is no meaningful oversight in this area– no close reading by the instructional superintendent to check for glaring omissions or inaccuracies, no timely investigation of teachers’ claims of misuse, no central office audits of the accuracy of what has been entered into the record, no nothing. Everything gets signed and kicked to the next location until it eventually lands in a file that’s rarely–if ever– opened. Whatever new system comes out of this current work won’t be any more effective if it suffers the same fate.
The higher-ups at DPS are probably as overwhelmed as the rank-and-file educators they’re supposed to support. But the path to advancement in such a place requires you to be more concerned about keeping up with the latest trendy school reform than stopping to seriously examine and address what’s going on out in the schools. (And why bother with that, anyway? There’s more money to be won from reinventing the wheel than fixing and using the tires you’ve got.)
So they’ve spent ten months, and a few million dollars, working on this. Spend ten years, and a billion dollars if you want. Or don’t. Who cares? Until the “look-busy-and-talk-smooth” culture at 900 Grant changes, it won’t make a whit of difference.