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Case Vignettes

Navigating the turbulent waters of teacher evaluation

Laura was in her second year as principal of a middle school based on Inquiry Learning. This was an exciting new theme-based diverse suburban school that built its program around interdisciplinary project-based learning. Her background although from a more traditional model included expertise in science, environmental studies and instructional technology. Like many schools, new teacher evaluation models had been implemented to meet State mandates and used standardized test data as a percentage of the teachers’ overall score. Since so much of student evaluation was performance driven at Inquiry, the teachers felt that the State test scores were not a valid measure and would negatively impact their own scores. Additionally, teachers believed that the more time spent in test prep, the less time to focus on the core themes and vision of this school. Even worse, they said, students would be turned off if work was not hands on nor could students work in teams and deliver projects as a team.

Laura found it increasingly difficult to have meaningful post-evaluation conferences with teachers or find ways to give them specific feedback that would address not only the quality of the student projects, but also how those projects aligned with the new Common Core Standards. She wanted to suggest methodologies or interventions that would help students become more successful on the mandated tests yet maintain the philosophy upon which this school was based. The test results were pretty poor across the board.

Pete, a veteran science teacher, had transferred to Inquiry in the hopes of a curriculum and culture more in tune with his middle-school philosophy. Kids loved his classes filled with experiments, research on their chrome books, answering questions based on challenging inquiry. He thought this kind of teaching would naturally transfer to high test scores in ELA and Math. They did not.

Laura realized when she reviewed Pete’s lesson plans that many of the activities did not translate to core knowledge in science or advance reading levels through systemic work in vocabulary and probing textual analysis. Although students read widely in non-fiction on their project topics, they read purely for information and perhaps the texts were not really challenging enough. It was hard to differentiate for the diverse reading ability and math competencies of the students. Although Pete had gone to all the professional development on the Common Core for his grade level, he thought it was not really relevant to what he knew was important for students to know, understand and be able to do.

Post–evaluation conferences turned loud and frustrating. Pete was defensive; Laura cold and scripted in her comments and suggestions. They each left the conference feeling angry, disappointed and misunderstood.

When we met with other administrators and teachers we discovered this was not only Laura’s and Pete’s problem. The assistant principal too had similar experiences. For brand new teachers they felt they had no voice and had to conform to the “administration” or be in jeopardy of an unsatisfactory evaluation.

By working with all the administrators in regular monthly professional learning sessions focused on how to give effective feedback we discovered some principals or assistant principals, directors or central office staff were more successful in dealing with post-conference conversations and their written evaluation than were others. We shared these comments and evaluations as a group using a tuning protocol to discuss the evaluations. Names, subjects, even grade levels were changed to maintain confidentiality.

At the same time, central office administration and the Director of Human Resources met with teacher union representatives to better define how administration could support teachers as they struggled with their own pedagogy, State standards and required State-wide assessments.

An inter-building task force with administration and teacher representatives were charged with writing common assessments that combined both performance and quantitative measures that would be better aligned to Common Core. On the social emotional end, both administrators and teachers received group coaching in order to recognize and develop common language to assess their own emotional responses to giving and getting feedback and how better to understand and regulate these emotions.

Several months into the work, a stronger culture for communication, a structure for problem solving and some new techniques to manage the evaluation process brought the temperature down. Additionally, these meetings led to the development of excellent assessments reflecting the core beliefs of this school; better intra- and inter building articulation and some enormously creative projects. And yes, scores started to improve.

These assessments were shared with other middle schools and became models of not only closing the gap between student sub-groups, but also closing the gap between project-based philosophies and standardized testing. Maybe even on a good day, closing the gap between administration and teachers.

(Note: All names including the school and its personnel are fictitious. The dilemma of the case is true)

When You Need to Consolidate

If you want to get hundreds of folks to a school board meeting, suggest closing a building. If you want every stakeholder in your district to volunteer to serve on a committee, suggest closing a school building. If you are looking to make some major changes in your administration, suggest closing a building. So too if you like endless meetings with every union, and non-stop incendiary lead articles in the local press – suggest closing a building.

Regardless of all the reasonable, fiscal and educationally sound arguments to close a school building it is a highly charged and often divisive event in a district’s life. A school board member in one district likened it to a death. Third generation families decide to move out of the district. Children may cry. Heads may roll. Petitions will have hundreds of signatures. Lawyers and demographers will have a field day. Transportation directors become key players as do custodians. Listen to them; they know what they are talking about.

Having said that, closing a school creates opportunities for renewal, better communications, more effective articulation and alignment, and ultimately redirecting precious and scant resources into human capital and student learning as opposed to bricks and mortar.

I’ve been part of the closing of an elementary school or the reconfiguration of grade levels in three different districts over the past few years. While some districts are struggling with overcrowding and increasing enrollments, especially where there is an influx of immigrants, others are finding that families with young children cannot afford houses in their communities and empty nesters are staying. Couples are marrying later and having children later. Our rapidly changing economics and family life, the job market, technology, transportation costs, are shifting the demographics and making it harder for schools to plan strategically.

School buildings need costly renovations and repair. One district actually demolished a building to save costs and for health and safety. Another district reconfigured their buildings to better utilize space and practically every K – 8 student was affected. This is one change that no one likes. That is where the agreement ends.

A wise principal once said to me in reference to a crisis I was trying to handle (and it did make front page news in New York City), “Today’s front page news is yesterday’s fish wrap.” I find this to be true in many situations. If you:

  • listen to all voices and include them,
  • make accommodations for specific difficult situations;
  • invite dissenters to become part of the solution and join with you in problem-solving,
  • develop a culture and the structures where civil discourse and debate are positive and
  • no one feels shut out, spend time but
  • ultimately act decisively,

The district can survive and prosper from a closing and become stronger.

In one case the building was sold, in another rented, and revenues enabled many jobs to be saved. Progressive and creative districts worked with town government, real estate developers, architects on reuse, repurposing and redevelopment. Community-based organizations, private-public partnerships can turn a building closure into a win-win. Change is the only constant today, school leaderships needs to become a swift boat rather than the luxury liner, Titanic, since there are many more icebergs, big and small ahead that need to be avoided.

How does district leadership develop the habit of open communication, collaboration, and trust so that every change is not a cause for conflict? How do leaders set direction and create a culture of success? These practices can be learned, honed and advanced way beyond the basic.

Spoiler Alert: Courage is required.