We expect the work we do in the teacher observation and evaluation process to produce results—namely, better teaching and improved learning.
Too often, though, it doesn't. We invest hundreds of hours of work for no discernible impact on student learning.
And in many cases, the vast majority of teachers continue to be evaluated as “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations.”
Mark Dynarski of the Brookings Institution goes so far as to call it “a waste of time and money.”
I've seen teacher evaluation—and especially the observation component—evolve over the course of my career, through four phases:
Stage Zero: The Trust Context
Before we even get into the diagram above, let's recognize where we started as a profession: with no formal systems in place.
(And let's be honest: much of our profession is still at "stage zero.")
In many schools—especially those shielded in various ways from Race to the Top—we're still at a pre-systemic stage.
Teacher evaluations may not be done at all, or may be done capriciously.
I've spoken with several people this month who've told me some variation on "My school didn't really do teacher evaluations at all before I got here."
In these schools, there's typically a high degree of relational trust and absolute or "organic" trust. (For a deep dive on this topic, check out Bryk & Schneider's Trust In Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement.)
Relational trust is the "normal" kind of interpersonal trust. Organic trust is trust in unquestioned institutions and societal structures—for example, trust in the principal of a small-town school who has held the office for 25 years, or trust in the parish priest who oversees a Catholic school.
Those two forms of trust work great in some settings, but they make it very difficult for teaching to become a true profession.
And of course, they're highly dependent on circumstances. All it takes is one weak leader, or one crisis in the community, to shake people's faith in organic and relational trust.
So as a profession, we've recognized the need to build more trustworthy systems for teacher observation and evaluation.
Stage 1: A Defensible System for Teacher Observation & Evaluation
In the first stage of our model, a credible system for teacher observation and evaluation is developed.
For better or worse, this system is built on whatever foundation of organic and relational trust already exists in the community.
Charlotte Danielson came to Seattle to work with our principals on a number of occasions, and she expressed frustration that her name was becoming something of a bad word to teachers.
Schools that had antagonistic and capricious approaches to teacher evaluation before they developed a system tended to develop systems that were…still antagonistic and capricious.
Over time, though, having a defensible system for teacher observation and evaluation helps a great deal, because it minimizes our reliance on relational and organic trust, and allows us to put our faith in transactional trust—the kind of trust based on everyone doing what they're supposed to do.
Or, to put it more bluntly:
- If your boss is a jerk and you don't have a defensible system, you're up a creek.
- If your boss is a jerk and you do have a defensible system, the process itself will help protect you from unfair treatment, and punish your boss for being a jerk.
This is where 90% of the drama around teacher evaluation has occurred.
Principals give out negative evaluations to teachers they want to get rid of, but don't follow the process. Teachers—rightly—call foul and seek justice through unions and lawsuits.
It's tumultuous, but in time, we learn how to maintain transactional trust by following the system, and it gets us to the next stage: trust in the process.
Stage 2: Transactional Trust in the Process
Now that we're years into the process of creating defensible systems for teacher observation and evaluation, we're starting to trust the process.
Grievances are going down, and the process is working out a little better each year.
But it's still leaving many people—like Mark Dynarski at Brookings—disappointed.
Why? Because a defensible system is just a foundation. It produces almost no results.
Simply observing and evaluating teachers isn't a process that has any real power to bring about improvement.
It creates the possibility of better results, but falls far short of guaranteeing those results.
Results are produced by high-performance systems.
So if you don't like the results you're getting, look at the system you've put in place.
Stage 3: An Optimized System for Observation & Evaluation
Systems have three interlinked components:
- Strategy determines whether the system is effective
- Tools determine whether the system is efficient
- Habits determine whether the system is consistent
You might recognize this as my High Performance Triangle model.
This is where technology and professional development can really start to make a difference.
Usually, though, technology is sold during Stage 1, as an implementation mechanism for the defensible system.
You no doubt have several apps like this that you've been required to use, in order to implement some new system.
Typically these apps are lousy, and people hate using them. They're so clunky, and so compliance-driven, that they don't do a good job of systematizing effectiveness, efficiency, or consistency.
But when we're ready—when we've fought through stages 1 and 2, and we carefully build the system we need for stage 3—amazing things can happen.
Once we've established a defensible system, built transactional trust, and figured out how to dial in our process, we can add technology to accelerate the work.
And that brings us to Stage 4.
Stage 4: A Realized Vision
Remember years ago, before all these changes to our teacher evaluation systems? We talked so much about the promise and potential of teacher evaluation—how it could:
- Facilitate reflective practice
- Promote continuous improvement
- Recognize and reward high performance
- Create career ladders for teachers
- Provide differentiated support for struggling teachers
…and so much more.
We've wanted teacher observation and evaluation to do all that from day one, but we weren't ready. In a lot of places we still aren't ready.
So look at the four stages above, and figure out where your organization is.
If you don't have a defensible system, don't expect technology to fix that. Get the system right—ensure it's fair, and ensure that everyone does their part.
If your organization isn't following its own processes—and "jerk bosses" are driving people away—technology isn't going to fix it.
But if you're at stage 3 and ready to move to stage 4, it's a great time to be an instructional leader, because we now have the technology we need to get our "high performance triangle" systems really dialed in.
And we can now realize our whole vision for teacher observation and evaluation:
This Thursday, I've invited my friend Dave Wakefield, software (and now hardware) designer extraordinaire, to lift the veil on his latest creation—hybrid teacher observations with synced video notes.
In Thursday's webinar, we'll discuss how to do "hybrid" live teacher observations, so you can take notes while in the classroom and sync them automatically with the video recording. We'll also explore:
- Why video is the ultimate professional growth tool—and why it's been left out of the teacher evaluation process until now
- How to use video as a non-threatening tool for enriching instructional conversations
- How to capture video with your smartphone—without creating huge files that take forever to upload
- A workflow for high-impact observations and post-conferences with NO prep work in between
- How to have evidence-based post-conferences with specific video clips—without having to review the whole video
…and more. The webinar is free, and it's going to be a game-changer.