In Forefront this week, education writer Carly Berwick examines the debate in Memphis over whether implementing teacher evaluation systems in its public schools can help produce better teachers, better students and — ultimately — a better city. While New Orleans is not Memphis, the public education systems in both cities share demographic profiles and dysfunctional policies common among many urban school districts. In addition, in both systems, a large number of the schools are charter schools.
Rebecca Steingut spent several years as a teacher at New Orleans schools, and has been under the spotlight of teacher evaluations. Drawing from her own experiences in the hot seat, she makes an argument against using teacher evaluations to measure success and improve outcomes for students and their communities.
Credit: Ivan T on Flickr
I moved to New Orleans in 2007 to work in public education. After spending time in a charter school, I joined Teach For America to gain more experience and certification. In this system, I moved from school to school throughout the area. Based on my experiences with evaluation at each of these schools, I have come to conclude that the emphasis on teacher evaluation as a key mechanism of teacher reform is misguided and ineffective. Instead, administrative support of teacher growth should be the framework by which urban school systems can improve the quality of teaching and, therefore, the outcomes for students.
I had particularly disappointing experiences in the Recovery School District, a statewide district in Louisiana designed specifically to transform underperforming schools into successes. As a teacher and special education department chair, I got a great deal of useful and positive feedback from the district’s centralized department, which was also willing to work with me to solve problems and always went the extra mile for the benefit of the students.
The school-based administration, on the other hand, performed a formal evaluation of my class exactly once per year. The only feedback I got was to make sure to have a generic lesson template posted — which takes very little critical thinking in its focus on concrete, but completely unimportant, bureaucratic requirements. More importantly, it ignored substantive ways in which I had yet to develop as a teacher and steps I could take to be more effective.
The next year, at a different school in the same district, the administration presented the evaluation tool mere weeks before we were to be assessed on it, giving us no time to work toward it. The administration also told the teachers how horrible the evaluation tool was, and that it was being imposed by the district and was not endorsed by the school administration. These mixed messages were not motivating, but demoralizing.
Meanwhile, my supervisors at TFA — I had a different one each year — gave me overwhelmingly positive feedback. However, I knew that they were not seeing the full picture of where I taught or the challenges I faced. I was desperate for more feedback and more face time with experienced educators, which I was not getting from either the district or TFA. Certainly this experience differs by region, district, city and even school. I know a TFA teacher in Washington, D.C. who has a veteran teacher assigned to be her mentor and support her in her growth and development.
The charter schools where I worked provided more positive evaluation experiences. I received regular visits not only from administrators, but also from my peers: Teachers both less experienced and more experienced than I. I knew that I had the opportunity to reach out to administrators and teachers to help me with problems as they came up. Although this happened at two separate charter schools, I do not actually attribute this difference to the schools being chartered. Rather, I think that the supportive philosophy of the administrators led to a culture of mutual support and willingness to ask for help.
What Teacher Evaluation Systems Lack
Some systems make teacher evaluations high-stakes, firing teachers because of low evaluation scores or student standardized test scores. Instead, I believe administration should support teachers to succeed on transparent and relevant evaluation systems as well as on regular informal evaluations. Many teachers are committed to their students and willing to work hard to improve for their benefit, but do not have the support, training, time or resources to do so. Instead of firing teachers, teachers of all types should be taught, supported and evaluated not on their overall score but on their progress.
Other systems pay teachers “merit pay” based on their scores on these evaluations. I reject the assumption that if only teachers were motivated to improve by financial incentives, they would pull it together and improve. Most teachers are already motivated: They desperately want to improve, because they see that students are not getting what they need. What these teachers need — feedback, support, models and time — they don’t have. (That said, teacher compensation should be increased overall, but not based on performance.)
Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp speaks at Tulane University in New Orleans. Credit: Tulane Publications
I agree that improving teachers is the chief mechanism by which we can best improve schools and outcomes for students, families and, by extension, communities. However, “raising the standards” or “teacher accountability” is not going to produce these results. Raising teaching standards without raising the supports for teachers is as foolhardy as giving students a test without first teaching them the content.
Teach For America is by no means a perfect solution to solving the systemic inequities that plague urban schools. That said, there is value in the message the organization sends its corp. One thing that I find compelling is that in addition to knowledge and skills, TFA emphasized mindsets as an important component of teacher training and development. These mindsets include student-centeredness, the belief that all students can learn and behave, and a teacher’s responsibility for the learning and behavior of students in his or her classroom. These beliefs lead to subtle behaviors that make the teacher who holds them more relentlessly positive to his or her students. It might seem that since I do place the responsibility on teachers, I would be in favor of holding them accountable.
However, so much of what these mindsets dictate happens in hallway conversations, after-school tutoring, is abstract or is otherwise un-measurable by teacher evaluation systems. Student motivation, beliefs and attitudes are sometimes the most valuable outcomes, which would not be measured by teacher evaluation systems or measurable at a large-scale level.
By simplifying teacher quality to student standardized test scores — and students outcomes to scores and graduation — teacher evaluation systems miss a lot of teacher value, just as they miss a lot of student success. The students of New Orleans can learn. Their teachers can improve, and want to. But the way to facilitate their improvement is not by dictating uniform standards high above teachers’ heads without providing the supports that will help them meet those standards. School systems must focus on supporting teacher growth, not on firing teachers who underperform in settings where the evaluative feedback is at times useless and necessary resources unavailable.
Rebecca Steingut is now a doctoral student at the University of Texas’s Department of Educational Psychology and a member of The Motivation and Education Research Group.