Let’s Make Teacher Evaluation About Learning


Written by John Troutman McCrann 

It’s March 2006 and I’m teaching Algebra 2 in Durham, North Carolina. A few minutes into the class, an assistant principal walks through the door, clipboard in hand, a stern look on her face and little interest in acknowledging my students or me. She arrives with her checklist teacher evaluation form to complete. She is looking to see my lesson objective written a certain way on the board; a copy of my lesson plan and student seating chart she can grab on her way out, and see how many X’s she can put on her form marking mandates I’ve failed to fulfill. My students had been working productively in groups, but I realize that their work will not cover parts of her checklist. I stop the productive group work and do some whole-class multiple choice questions, sacrificing student learning to avoid a low rating on her teacher evaluation form.

Twelve years later I am teaching Algebra in New York City. A different assistant principal steps into the room smilingly nodding to me and the students. She is carrying a blank notepad. She sits down quietly and begins to record the things students and I are saying. She also notes what is written on the board, where students are sitting, and records information about which students are and are not on task. She moves around in class a bit behind me as I check in with groups. Later, she’ll review this text and annotate it with questions she wants to ask about what was happening.

Both assistant principals gained insight into my preparedness for class. Both learned about how I organized class space and supplies. Both got information about what the students know and how I elicited that knowledge.

But, they got that information in very different ways. The decisions that these two APs made about how to observe me reflect two very different sets of beliefs about teaching and their role as administrators.

If you were a teacher, which school would you rather work in? If you were a student, which school would you rather attend?

Earlier in my career, it felt like the only goal of teacher evaluation systems was to identify and fire “bad” teachers. I got feedback, but it seemed more targeted toward instilling fear in me than instilling deep thinking in my students.

I now work in a public New York City school, Harvest Collegiate High School, where we have an evaluation system that looks and feels different:

At my initial planning conference this fall, I will have a discussion with the assistant principal who will evaluate me during the year. She will not mandate a list of things to be written on the board in my room or a lesson plan format. I will not expect her to dictate a set of effective ways to check for student understanding. Together, we will talk about my practice and how I hope to grow over the course of the year. We will look together at the New York City teacher evaluation rubric and decide what components to focus our work on.

Over the course of the year, we will have an ongoing informal conversation about how things are going. Often, we will touch on the goals we agreed upon in the initial conference. Other times, we will talk about other unexpected struggles that come up. She will pop into my class from time to time to check in or lend a hand. I’ll invite her in when I’m trying a new activity to see if she has suggestions about how to make it better.

At least twice during the year, she will observe the class in a more detailed way. During these observations, she will take “low inference” notes when she is in the room. In our post-observation conference, we will look together at the notes and the annotations she has made. We will discuss the way this evidence falls on the rubric. She will highlight areas of strength in the lesson. Together, we will pinpoint areas where improvement in my teaching could maximize improvement in my students’ learning.

At the end of the year, I’ll compile evidence of my growth as an educator into a teacher portfolio, created during our staff professional time. I will present this evidence to my assistant principal and a group of teachers during our school’s annual “Teacher Summit.” They will all evaluate the work and critique my performance

Those of us who value teaching and its complexity need to find ways to rethink the current teacher evaluation paradigm so that we are enacting these values. The system that New York City has in place at Harvest feels like it does this in our context, but it might not work at other schools. System leaders cannot prescribe a set of structures that will work in all schools but leaders must prescribe a set of values for school-based evaluators.

Regardless of how they are articulated, they should encompass some basic do’s and don’t’s:

Don’t turn the assessment of our work into a hunt for bad teachers

No teacher evaluation system ever created has found that a large portion of teachers in any system was incompetent. A good system will be able to identify and support struggling teachers without appealing to the lowest common denominator. Administrators should think strategically and differentiate interventions to accommodate the different levels of their teachers.

Don’t overlook the complexity of our work by focusing on simplistic components

Good teachers are making at least one micro-decision every fifteen seconds. Some of those will inevitably be ineffective, but it is the job of a good evaluator to home in on the ones which leverage student learning the most. Conversations about a lesson should start with those moments, not things that are simply easy to observe.

Do treat teachers like intellectuals and professionals

Every teacher knows that there is a correlation between what we expect of our students and what they achieve. System administrators can leverage this effect on adult learning by raising their expectations for the intellectualism and professionalism of teachers in their system. A teacher whose intellect is valued has a voice in her own professional growth. Her time is used meaningfully throughout the year. When there is a problem, she is asked what solutions she’s developed and how they have worked.

Do create time and space for meaningful discussion about an individual teachers’ practice

A common complaint I hear from principals when I talk about these ideas is that they would love to have meaningful professional discourse with their staff, but they do not have enough time. School districts should find ways to unburden principal’s so that this is no longer the case. This might mean shifting some traditional administrative responsibilities to teacher leaders. It could also mean that principals “do less, better,” observing teachers fewer times but engaging with them more meaningfully after each observation.

I am a happier and more effective teacher today thanks to the reforms in teacher evaluation that we implemented at Harvest. They allow me to spend less time worrying about my own evaluation score and more time worrying about how to help young people think deeply and critically. If all teachers could make this shift then all students would benefit. What are you doing to develop assessment systems that promote learning in your class/school/district? 

John Troutman McCrann is a teacher and teacher leader at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan. He has taught math and physics for 12 years in public schools in New York City and Durham, North Carolina. His teacher leadership roles include leading the school’s chapter of the United Federation of Teachers. He is National Board Certified and an MFA Master Teacher. Connect with him on Twitter @JohnTroutMcCran.