Positive, Not Punitive
November 11, 2021
November 11, 2021
Evaluations shall include student academic progress as a significant component and an overall summative rating. Teacher evaluations shall include regular observation and evidence that instruction is aligned with the school’s curriculum. Evaluations shall include identification of areas of individual strengths and weaknesses and recommendations for appropriate professional activities.
—Code of Virginia § 22.1-253.13:5. Standard 5. Quality of classroom instruction and educational leadership.
By Donna L. Shrum
Educators invest countless hours honing their professional skills, but the yearly official record of their work boils down to a handful of administrative observations and evaluations (O/E). The main purpose of O/E is to promote educator growth and thus maximize student learning, but they also carry repercussions for tenure, job retention, placement, and other important decisions. O/E are often sources of unnecessary stress and confusion, quickly forgotten and useless after they’re filed. We can do better, but before looking at how to improve the current situation, it’s useful to first understand how O/E evolved in Virginia.
The 1983 report A Nation at Risk created a panic by blaming students who didn’t work hard enough and improperly supervised staff for public schools’ problems. At the time, formal O/E didn’t happen because no state or national law required it. After the report, many administrators began to use observations primarily as a tool to document why a teacher should be dismissed.
Virginia had Standards of Learning in the 1980s, but they were much different than the SOLs we know today. The Improving America’s Schools Act in 1994 led to Virginia’s creation of the first SOLs in 1995, accompanied by mandatory testing. President Bush signed No Child Left Behind in 2002, and Virginia’s 2004 graduating class was the first required to pass standardized tests to earn a diploma.
Once the state held students accountable for their learning, educators came next. In 2000, Virginia’s Board of Education approved the first Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers, Administrators, and Superintendents.
You In 2009, O/E became more intense when President Obama announced Race to the Top, designed “to overhaul teacher evaluation, move toward performance pay, improve low-performing schools and raise academic standards.” Although Virginia never received any RTTT dollars, the federal government mandated that states revise their evaluations and have them in place by 2011. They now included value-added measures (VAM): student scores on standardized tests were 40 percent of a teacher’s rating.
In 2016, the federal government adopted the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and retracted its control over states’ evaluation systems, leading Virginia to begin overhauling its system again. Beginning in January 2020, student growth no longer counted for 40 percent of the evaluation and was not necessarily attached to standardized test scores, but “student academic progress” as defined by local school boards.
Two decades after Virginia created its first mandatory O/E system, mid-year and summative reviews occur annually with observations, mini-observations, and walk-throughs recommended. Observations can be announced or not, preceded by a pre-conference as well as one after, informal or just a walk-through. Virginia law requires them, but local school divisions determine frequency, duration, and completion dates.
Afterward, the evaluator and educator discuss the observed lesson and can agree to make changes before the form is finalized. If you disagree with comments in the observation document, you can either write a rebuttal in the comments area of the electronic form or a separate one that is added to your personnel file. School divisions around the state vary in how they handle rebuttals: One, for instance, says rebuttals can lead to changes in the form “if justifiable;” another system says the rebuttal is merely added to the file; and another allows its employees to withhold their signature if they disagree with the O/E until it’s changed. O/E remain within the school system, but if you apply for a job elsewhere, the O/E can be referenced if the administrator is contacted.
Here in Virginia, administrators receive brief training at the beginning of earning their leadership degree in how to observe and evaluate teachers. They must also pass the School Leaders Licensure Exam, for which the current Study Companion contains this question:
A new school leader can best assess the competence of the campus faculty by:
The correct answer is (D). This question tests the school leader’s knowledge of processes that best assess the competency levels of teachers. By conducting frequent walk-throughs, the school leader can observe teachers and gather evidence on whether they are utilizing effective instructional practices.
New administrators are often assigned a mentor, but refining how to conduct O/E and write appropriate and targeted feedback is often overshadowed by other demands. System-wide training often focuses more on how to use computer programs to record the O/E rather than the best ways to achieve inter-rater reliability, which means that any administrator in the system should evaluate an educator comparably. This isn’t an easy goal and requires focused training and practice in a school system. Time, money, and administrator turnover are obstacles even when uniformly training leaders in best practice is a priority.
The more traveled path for administrators to improve their observation and evaluation skills is self-study and the passage of time. Just as most educators grow with their years of experience, administrators also grow in their ability to process what’s happening in a classroom and writing about it clearly and objectively. A 2019 study in Michigan showed three factors influenced how principals make sense of and ultimately enact teacher evaluation policies and systems: years of experience as a principal, years of experience at one school, and years of experience as a teacher prior to becoming an administrator.
Dr. Kim Marshall, a former principal and administrator coach, points out that every time an administrator walks into classrooms, educators feel their jobs are on the line, creating tension and anxiety which makes it difficult to admit errors, listen, or talk about needed improvement. Educators usually feel the principal owns the feedback, not them. While the O/E form asks for identification of areas of strength and weakness, many educators worry anything they admit can and will be used against them. With such an uneven balance of power, it’s often impossible to use O/E as an opportunity for professional growth, despite that being one of their most important purposes.
To make the most of evaluations, it’s vital that administrators build relationships before sitting down with an educator and be ready with planned and supported ways to assist them in their growth, not meet them with immediate punishment for missing the mark. A single observation should not be the first and last time an educator discovers a perceived weakness, and written evaluation comments should reflect ongoing observation of the educator, not one visit. Dr. James H. Stronge, a William & Mary education professor whose work is the foundation of Virginia’s Guidelines, says, “Systematic communication should be viewed as a hallmark of sound evaluation.”
When comments are inaccurate or derogatory, instead of constructive and helpful, the damage can’t be understated: a Harvard Business School study showed employees react six times more strongly to negative interactions with a supervisor and half of employees who receive harsh criticism reduce their productivity. The study noted that negative feedback must be delivered appropriately, preferably through ongoing conversation that is consistent and free of conflicting messages. Teacher turnover is at an all-time high, so it’s crucial that comments and feedback don’t plant the seeds of teacher disaffection, which can spread throughout a school.
Virginia’s 2021 Guidelines offer some very promising directions for O/E. One is the recognition that not all performance standards are found in every lesson, and expecting an administrator to check them all off in one observation may be a bit much: “Given the complexity of the job responsibilities of teachers, it is unlikely that an evaluator will have the opportunity to observe and provide feedback on all of the performance standards in a given visit. . . In fact, an observation might focus on a specific standard.”
The O/E forms include educator artifacts as evidence, which was only mentioned in prior Guidelines. Some school systems currently require educators to collect artifacts during the year, which can be time-consuming, but it shifts some of the responsibility and power for O/E to the educator. The new Guidelines note: “Direct classroom observation can be a useful way to collect information on teacher performance; as a stand-alone data collection process, however, it has major limitations. If the purpose of a teacher evaluation system is to provide a comprehensive picture of performance in order to guide professional growth, then classroom observations should be only one piece of the data collection puzzle.”
Previous Guidelines also mentioned collecting data through student surveys, but now age-appropriate sample surveys are provided to encourage and simplify the opportunity for a major stakeholder, the student, to give feedback to the educator.
New educators are told they’ll be observed and evaluated and where to find the county’s Guidelines-based handbook. They then begin the adventure of their first year of teaching and experience their first observations and evaluations. Learning about that process, however, often isn’t a priority, and rookies may not know that a wealth of information is on their system’s and the VDOE’s website to help them. Many don’t have the time or realize it’s helpful to read the system’s handbook, the state’s current Guidelines, or follow the news from Richmond about changes. Like Titanic’s lifeboats, you don’t worry about them until you need them, mainly because you never thought you would.
In the new Guidelines, ratings have been changed to Highly Effective, Effective, Approaching Effective, and Ineffective. During the RTTT years, many teachers became upset or confused at being rated Satisfactory when a rating of Exemplary was added. The new Guidelines provide greater description of the qualities that distinguish an Effective educator from a Highly Effective one.
Areas targeted for growth in an observation and evaluation can be addressed by an informal Learning Dialogue or the more formal Performance Improvement Plan (see here).
As Virginia’s school systems begin to incorporate the new Guidelines, we have an opportunity to refine how observations and evaluations can be consistently used to meet their primary purpose: increased student learning and achievement. As educators are trained to use the new Guidelines, hopefully school systems will also provide professional development, retraining, and mentorship for administrators aimed at enhancing their understanding of how to use O/E to foster educator growth.
A first step for us is to inform ourselves and plan purposefully to be an active, not passive, participant. Then we’ll be ready to engage students in providing regular feedback to us so we can better understand how to meet their academic needs.
Shrum, a Shenandoah County Education Association member, is a history and geography teacher at Central High School.
Teacher effectiveness is important because of the direct impact teachers have on student performance. In fact, teacher effectiveness is the most significant school-related variable impacting student learning outcomes. Teachers have a powerful, long-lasting influence on their students. They directly affect how students learn, what they learn, how much they learn, and the ways they interact with one another and the world around them. Considering the extent of the teacher’s influence, it is important to recognize teacher effectiveness and understand what exactly a teacher can do to promote positive results in the lives of students – with regard to school achievement, attitudes toward school, interest in learning, and other desirable outcomes. This understanding should be based on what educational research has shown to be significant in teacher practices. Since the breakthrough of behavioral learning theory in psychology in the 1950s and 1960s, research on teaching practice has made momentous advances and evolved drastically. We know more about teaching and learning than we ever have. Given this rich evidence base, teacher evaluation should be built on this body of research so that it can measure the specific qualities that matter most.
The primary purposes of a quality teacher evaluation system are to:
A high-quality teacher evaluation system includes the following distinguishing characteristics:
An excerpt from Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers, Administrators, and Superintendents (VDOE).