Gorillas and Teacher Evaluation

March 5, 2014

Let me just say this at the start–I’m in favor of systematized teacher evaluation systems. Here in Rhode Island, we have taken elements of the Danielson framework and built a rubric for professional practice from it. In our network, we’ve spent considerable time focusing on the various sub-domains via Instructional Rounds and other forms of professional development and have conducted numerous partnered observations to norm our process.

The system itself has a number of imperfections. First, a teacher’s effectiveness level in any domain is calculated using a simple average. That means that a teacher who becomes more and more effective in one sub-domain over time is not rewarded for growth. (maybe reward is the wrong term–it’s better to note that the final rating may simply be inaccurate. As a fan of standards-based grading using complete or weighted replacement in which a student’s mastery in one area is determined by his most recent grade, the practice of averaging these teacher ratings perturbs me.

Second, while the process has forced some of us to observe and give feedback more frequently, it has also become another bureaucratic exercise–so much so that where I work we’ve actually separated the observation/evaluation process and our coaching and peer feedback process. I’d love a world where the elements of coaching, support, real feedback and self reflection were companionable elements of a constructive and meaningful evaluation system.

However, what really concerns me is the possibility that focusing on the elements of the rubric could cause us to miss –or misunderstand–other events in the classroom. If radiologists–highly trained viewers–can miss a picture of a gorilla superimposed on slides they look at when searching for cancer, then it’s certainly not a stretch to think that educators might miss important classroom events, teaching practices or student actions when framing the observation in terms of a (very good) rubric only. What’s the solution? Observe with an open mind. Use partners who can observe with little or no preconceived notion of what to look for. Leave the rubric behind from time to time. Try video which allows the teacher –alone or with colleagues–to view and debrief by starting with what they noticed, staying low on the ladder of inference. Let’s just look, rather than looking for something.

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