The controversy surrounding teacher evaluation has reached a fever pitch. From the streets of Chicago to dinner tables across the nation and even on the big screen—how we judge teacher performance is on everyone's mind. But my own experience instructs me that evaluation should only take place after a process of meaningful, dynamic teacher training and support.
Twenty years ago Teach for America placed me in the Los Angeles Unified School District to teach English as a Second Language. I was 22-years-old, I knew very little about teaching, and even less about English Learners, but I thought I could change the world one student at a time. I gave everything I had to 120 high schoolers who'd come from all over the world to escape poverty, war, political oppression, and abuse. Together, we discovered and rediscovered the American Dream.
If only I'd known how to teach.
I didn't. Alarmingly, no one seemed to notice or care. Before me, my students had been with day-to-day subs for a month. My school had over 4,500 students, four profoundly overworked administrators, and teachers who, because they had over 40 students in their classes, could only smile sympathetically. In my teacher credentialing class, the professor hadn't taught in over 25 years and had only heard about "this ESL thing."
I was happy when I got a note saying an assistant principal would be in my classroom for a formal "Stull Observation." I'd lost my ego during my first week, so I was eager for help, even if the critique might be brutal.
I'd worked for days writing a lesson on verb tenses and when the AP came in, my students were actually on task and I was teaching hard—running back and forth between writing groups, yelling directions on how to differentiate between past and present verb tense. Just as I was about to bring a group sample to the overhead projector, he was gone.
Later that day, I got a note that read, "Please come by my office, I have a concern." My heart sunk. I knew it wasn't a great lesson, but now I was scared. I realized in that moment that I wanted more than anything to be a teacher, a good teacher. I wanted my students to learn those stupid verb tenses and I wanted to be the one that taught them. Now something that I had done in the 10 minutes he'd been in my class might put it all in jeopardy.
His secretary told me to go in even though he was on the phone "with downtown."
"What do you need?" he asked.
"You said to see you about a concern." I held up the note.
"Oh yeah. Bob, give me two minutes. Two minutes. Hold on. Just two minutes," he said to someone on the phone. "Zimmer, sit down," he told me.
I sat down in a folding chair. He fumbled for a paper.
"Zimmer, when I was in your classroom today, I noticed there were papers and folders in front of the heater."
"Oh, I didn't know, I'll…."
"I need you to move them, it's a potential fire hazard."
"Um ok, so I…."
"I need you to move them. That's all. Is there something wrong?"
"No it's just that…." Then he handed me a paper that I later learned was my evaluation form. All the boxes were marked "exceeds expectation."
He looked at me. I looked back at him. I can hide a lot of emotions, but bewildered is hard to cover up.
"Sign your evaluation," he said. "What are you waiting for? Am I missing something?"
Eight years would pass before I was observed through the district again. Through seeking out mentors and hard work, I became a decent teacher. I was never excellent. Still, every time, my evaluation had "exceeds expectation" checked on every box. I would sign and return it although no one had ever visited my class. In my 17 years of teaching, I was meaningfully evaluated just once.
Teacher evaluations have changed in California since then, but four years of devastating budget cuts, declining enrollment, and teacher layoffs—over 3,000 in LAUSD—have turned our attention away from recruiting, training, and supporting educators. We have become obsessed with sorting and ranking teachers through evaluations that focus on standardized tests.
There is resistance to these proposals because teachers want meaningful evaluation so that we can improve and so students can achieve, grow, and transcend. To do that you need a lot more data—a much more robust set of indicators—than a single test score.
There's resistance because teaching in a school community is a team sport, not the "Hunger Games" of academics. There's resistance because the stakes attached to standardized tests are already too high. Evaluating teachers based on students' performance on a single test could result in an unconscious sorting of children based on their potential to score.
There's a more practical reason to rethink the emphasis on purely summative evaluation. With a retirement bubble approaching, a profound teacher shortage is three to five years away. All the test score-based evaluations in the world aren't going to help the next generation of idealistic teachers. A comprehensive system of teacher training, support, and evaluation can.
Luckily, we have many systems already in place. We just have to use them differently. California’s Peer Assistance and Review system could, with important adjustments and investment, become a national collaborative model. A new report "Greatness by Design" by Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and the superintendent of Long Beach's schools, Chris Steinhauser also takes a strategic, pragmatic approach to recruiting, assigning, training, and supporting the next generation’s teachers. An LAUSD proposal to the teachers union highlights building the relationships between teacher and administrator so that evaluation is about information and improvement rather than scores and consequences.
Students are still bringing their American Dreams to us. We know how powerful those dreams are and we know the critical role teachers have in guiding this dream. It is our job to create the training, support, and evaluation that matches the depth of our responsibility and the power of each student's potential.