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By Thomas J. Shields

In September in Chicago, nearly 350,000 students and 26,000 teachers missed school: Classrooms were empty, playgrounds sat idle, and buses did not transport students. Instead of pacing the classroom, Chicago’s teachers were pacing picket lines.

At the core of the week-long strike was the issue of teacher evaluations. The Illinois state legislature, in an attempt to secure Race to the Top funding, demanded that 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student test scores. Chicago’s mayor wanted to increase this to 45 percent over five years. “How do you hold teachers accountable for improvement when so many things used to evaluate them are outside their control or very complicated?”asked Chicago Teacher’s Union attorney Robert Bloch.

Grading teachers is a huge issue here in Virginia, too, as the state implements a new evaluation system. Like any professionals, teachers should be afforded constructive feedback and well-designed evaluations. Here are six suggestions to consider if Virginia’s system is going to be effective:

1. We need to develop an environment of transparency, nonjudgmentalism and trust. School divisions and the Virginia Department of Education need to ensure that evaluations are used for professional development and for assisting teachers with their craft. Teaching is an art that takes a great deal of practice and constant improvement. Focusing on punitive measures won’t solve our problems with student growth, nor will it create more effective teaching. Transparency and trust between administrator and teacher, keys in any management-employee relationship, will need to be the cornerstone of the evaluation process.

2. We should incorporate alternative and nontraditional assessments that reflect a full year in the classroom, not just a moment in time during a standardized, high-stakes test. We need more constructivist-oriented instruction and assessments focused on creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking. This is especially necessary because only 30 percent of Virginia teachers can have evaluations based on student growth percentiles from the Standards of Learning; the other 70 percent will need other measurements to show student growth. VDoE has encouraged local school divisions to develop and use multiple and innovative means of assessment, such as online portfolios, documentation logs, and student or authentic self-assessments.

3. We should shift from a focus on individual accountability to one of shared governance in the performance of our schools. Teachers and principals will need to plan for student growth as part of a community of learners that values input from stakeholders such as parents, students, staff and community members. When done correctly, student achievement goal-setting is communal and creates shared results that will help improve instruction and teacher performance.

4. Principals must have a positive approach to teacher evaluation. They will need to use both transactional leadership, which focuses on outcomes or outputs, and transformational leadership, which focuses on relationship-building, values, understanding, trust and dialogue. For example, principals should do frequent observations that last for a full lesson—this will enable them to communicate straightforward, constructive feedback to teachers. Only through honest and open dialogue about their practice can teachers improve and understand their craft more fully.

5. For too long, K-12 teachers have had to focus on content and not on children. This must change. Like a bad drug, the negative side-effects of this type of education have meant a focus on outcomes, sometimes at any cost. There have been widely-reported cheating scandals as school divisions try to keep scores rising year after year. Continuing to put too much focus on using standardized tests in teacher evaluations could lead to further ethical problems. We need to return to child-centered education, where Virginia’s Performance Standard 6, which focuses on professionalism and ethics, holds the highest level of respect. This is particularly true for principals, who as leaders should be zeroing in on ethics and professionalism in teacher evaluations. School leadership is first and foremost about ethical and moral actions, not outcomes or progress on a test. 

6. Most importantly, if these new evaluations are to be done right, we’ll need significant professional development devoted to improving the relationship between students, teachers and principals. We can’t just focus on student academic progress. Apple Computers has created great products not by focusing on the assembly line or outcomes, but by hiring people and letting them explore their creative, innovative and out-of-the-box thinking. If Virginia wants great student achievement, the focus for teacher evaluation should be on the other six performance standards, like providing relevant experiences (teacher performance standard 1), using a variety of instructional strategies (teacher performance standard 3), and providing a respectful, positive, safe and student-centered environment (teacher performance standard 5).

What happened in Chicago should be a wake-up call for teachers and principals in Virginia. This was a fight about what public education means to us, and about the value of teachers and how they should be respected.

If teacher evaluations in our state are implemented using only standardized test scores, it could lead to acrimony, distrust and finger-pointing, as it did in Chicago. However, if such evaluations are implemented with trust, transparency, shared governance of results, open communication and sound ethics, there are incredible opportunities for growth for our students and our schools.

Shields ( is a professor in Graduate Education in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies and is the director of the Center for Leadership in Education at the University of Richmond.

Donors Choose…You?

Students learn best when their teachers are free to create and innovate. Our teachers have lots of good ideas and strategies for their classrooms; unfortunately, they often lack the funds to make them happen.

To help remove some of those obstacles, the NEA Foundation has partnered with, and is providing matching funds for teacher projects.

Visit to learn how it works, or to support a fellow member’s project. The NEA Foundation will match public donations that support NEA member requests, up to $250.

Essay Contest Asks Students To Look Back, Forward

Young people across the country can use the “Listen to a Life” annual essay contest to travel through time, learn about the past and look to the future, perhaps changing lives in the process. Students are asked to interview a grandparent or grandfriend about their life experiences and then write about it for a chance to win prizes, including a Lenovo ThinkCentre computer. The contest, now in its 13th year, is run by The Legacy Project in partnership with Generations United in Washington, DC. Free online resources are also available to schools and families for building closer connections across generations.

Deadline for entries is March 22, 2013. For more information, visit

Undercover Learning

The International Spy Museum, in Washington, D.C., has a variety of resources for use in the classroom:

•  Lesson plans that connect espionage with historical events, including “Minute by Minute,” a look at the Cuban Missile Crisis that challenges to make decisions and recommendations based on primary documents and photos at various stages of the event. Will their analysis provide President Kennedy with the information he needs to avoid nuclear catastrophe?

•  Educator Spy Guides link academic subject areas – including art, math, science, social studies and more – to permanent exhibits at the International Spy Museum. In “Educator Spy Guide – US Government,” for example, students study national and global roles of national security and intelligence through the stories, artifacts, historic photographs, and films on display in the museum.

•  Electronic field trips offer students the hands-on experience of visiting the International Spy Museum through an interactive video conferencing technology. Workshops include The Spy’s Eye View, a look into a spy briefing with a former CIA Case Officer, and Spy Science, where students learn the science behind supporting agents.

For more information, go to

Important, Rigorous Definitions: What They Really Mean

The importance of understanding the importance of important information is important to educators, says Thom Ryder, a member of the Roanoke County Education Association, a third grade teacher at Oak Grove Elementary School, and the creator of the School Acronym Glossary (SAG). Ryder says SAG is by no means a comprehensive collection of important information—but claims that no more rigorous work exists. Here are some excerpts:

21st Century Skills Movement:  With the dawning of the 21st century, educators scrambled to understand the changing demands of the new world. As a result, skills such as basic texting, emoticon diversity and profile-building are now entrenched in the common core standards.

AA (Assessment Alignment):  Organizing tests in a line.

AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress):  An archaic term used in the early 21st century prior to education strategists discovering “rigority” (see below).

ES (Essential Skills): Fire-building and competitive hot dog eating.

ESS (Enhanced Scope and Sequence):  Mouthwash and a new wardrobe.

FLE (Family Life Education):  Something every fifth-grade teacher tries to avoid.

IA (Instructional Assistant): A saint who works for peanuts.

MFA (Multi-Faceted Assessments): No definition has yet to be developed.

NCLB (No Child Left Behind):  An archaic term that has, ironically, been left behind.

PBA (Performance-Based Assessment or Professional Bowlers Association):  Two ways of knocking things down.

PBL (Project-Based Learning):  Giving children special assignments for their parents to do at home.

Rigor (also rigorly, rigorful, rigorlishous, out-rigored, out-rigoring, more rigorous, rigored, unrigored, disrigored, etc.):  Stiff.

SAP (Substance Abuse Program):  Anti-depressants for teachers.

SPDQ (Student Performance Data by Question):  Linear measurement analysis followed by ice cream cake.

The Four R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic, Rigor: The foundation of our democracy.

UTPST (Uniform Teaching Performance Standards for Teachers): Similar to road signs on I-70 through Kansas that say “World’s Largest Prairie Dog in the World.”

VDOE (Virginia Department of Education): The body that reforms education every 5-10 years.

VSUP (Virginia School University Partnership):  Known to participants as “Wass’up,” VSUP is a public school and public college dining partnership.



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