Curtis Whatley is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

For the past few weeks, there has been a lot of chatter about teacher evaluation systems. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made waves when its 2012 Annual Letter showed a deep interest in peer evaluations for teachers. Meanwhile, NYCAN: The New York Campaign for Achievement Now, Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) and other advocacy groups joined Governor Andrew Cuomo in calling for an evaluation system that makes good on the Empire State’s Race to the Top promises. While New York advocates revved up their call for reform, Los Angeles teachers like Coleen Bondy were reacting to the effectiveness reports produced by Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) teacher evaluation system.

With good reason, reformers often talk about teacher evaluations as an accountability issue. After all, a good evaluation system holds teachers responsible for providing effective instruction for kids. And obviously, student-learning outcomes should be our top priority.

Unfortunately, when advocates use this lane to drive the conversation on evaluation systems, educators feel like they’re under attack.

Bondy had this to say about how LAUSD’s effectiveness reports hold teachers accountable: “There are days, or perhaps just moments, when I feel like giving up. I have had to resign myself to the incomprehensible idea that society has decided to blame many of its failings on teachers.”

Maybe her analysis is a tad oversimplified, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. If you think for a second about whom politicians and advocates typically seek to hold “accountable” – negligent bankers, industrial polluters, wasteful bureaucrats – you begin to see where her frustration comes from.

A demoralized teaching force isn’t part of anyone’s vision for education reform. At the same time, advocates know that frequent teacher feedback and effective instruction are keys to increasing student achievement. Therefore, we can’t stop heading in the direction of improved teacher evaluation. 

So what should advocates do? Rather than changing direction, we need to change lanes. The Gates Foundation, NYCAN and E4E are three examples worth following.

They’re beginning to talk about teacher evaluation in terms of professionalization. Taking this lane keeps policymaking headed in the right direction without sideswiping educators.

If you read the Gates Foundation’s 2012 Annual Letter closely, there’s hardly any mention of removing ineffective teachers from the classroom. Instead, Gates focuses on how Tampa’s peer-evaluation system is remarkable in its ability to help teachers improve instruction. This emphasis on growth, rather than punitive measures, acknowledges teachers as the professionals they are.

Likewise, NYCAN’s teacher evaluation policy primer is insistent on building a framework that develops educators’ instructional skills. “[Even] when school districts and individual schools collect useful evaluation information, they often use it too narrowly,” the report argues. “Managers then miss an opportunity to leverage their best teachers and to help teachers with the potential to grow.”

E4E’s Evan Stone and Sydney Morris struck a similar tone in a recent op-ed that connects teacher evaluation to student achievement. “As elementary-school teachers in The Bronx,” they write, “we knew there were students who left our classrooms well prepared, but also that there were others whom we could have helped more if we’d had the support and feedback all professionals deserve.”

When I was teaching, the vast majority of my colleagues were obsessed with honing their craft. Unfortunately, our evaluations and professional development sessions weren’t much help. At the end of the day, that not only made our jobs harder, but also made learning more difficult for students. If we want to do right by kids, their teachers need to be treated like professionals. That means helping them grow through meaningful feedback from principals, peers and students as well as providing data-driven professional development. The Gates Foundation, NYCAN and E4E know the way.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user YaelBeeri


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