Why Work at School District 27J?
Creating a New Teacher Evaluation System
Teachers and administrators worked together to create a new evaluation. This first discussion centered sharing what was working in the evaluation system – and what was not. Overwhelmingly, the bad experiences dominated discussions.
In many ways the old evaluation system looked similar to what most districts use. There was a pre-conference between the teacher and evaluator/principal, a series of formal classroom observations (nicknamed “the dog-and-pony-show”) followed by an a summative narrative written by the evaluator, and a rating form with comments returned to the teacher at the end of the school year. Non-probationary teachers were evaluated once every three years.
Case study interviewees reported it was not unusual to see comments from one teacher’s prior-year evaluation seemingly cut and pasted into another teacher’s current evaluation. Mismatched pronouns were dead giveaways (e.g., Ms. Smith. . . he…). “The evaluation was for compliance and wasn’t contributing to improving teachers’ instruction,” said one evaluation subcommittee member.
Another problem was the five-scale ”grade” of exemplary (E), proficient (P), satisfactory (S), improvement recommended(IR) or unsatisfactory (U) assigned to each of four areas of teacher responsibility . Teachers said evaluations had become distorted by the grades, qualitative feedback was lost, and often they didn’t understand how the grade and narrative lined up. “The first thing we did was count the number of Es and Ps,” said one teacher. “If we didn’t get all Es we were disappointed.” Teachers also said the ratings were inconsistent across schools and among evaluators in the same school.
Professional learning opportunities were disconnected from the teacher evaluations. 27J had introduced formative assessments both as an instructional strategy and an assessment strategy with students. Using formative assessments, teachers were seeing gains in student achievement. They wanted to use the concept of formative assessments for their own professional learning. (See more on formative assessments later in the case study.)
Using Research to Inform the New Evaluation Design
The evaluation subcommittee used research to design the new evaluation system. For example, the subcommittee drafted new teacher quality components based on the Colorado Teaching Standards, Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching and other standards.
The underpinnings of new evaluation system is based in large part on Robert Garmston’s research about self-directed learning based on self-reflection, and Carol Dweck’s research on using learning goals to increase competence.
The subcommittee also tapped Edward Deming’s research explaining the conditions that create employee success. According to Deming, when there is a performance problem, 95 percent of the time it’s due to the system and not the individual. Deming also noted that merit ratings may nourish short-term performance, but they annihilate long-term planning – leaving the organization as the loser. Deming’s work was instrumental in 27J’s getting away from a graded teacher evaluation system.
A review of different coaching models indicated that feedback about the quality of teachers’ work and feedback about strategies teachers use to do their work are most helpful. There was a unanimous belief among subcommittee members that teachers come to work every day to help students learn and to improve their own skills to become a better teacher. “It wasn’t going to be punitive – it wasn’t going to be a gottcha,” said one subcommittee member.
Key Elements of the New Evaluation System
The evaluation subcommittee fleshed out the design of the new evaluation system during its second year of meetings. The following elements were submitted to the teacher association negotiating committee, adopted and written into the BEA master agreement.
The purpose of the new teacher evaluation system is to:
Emphasize the process of improvement by involving teachers and administrators in generating descriptive feedback and in discussing teaching and learning.
Use the summative evaluation only for teachers on the “intensive track” (teachers that are not proficient).
Replace summative evaluation with records of multiple observations and discussions between teachers and their observers.
Increase joint accountability by requiring evaluators to observe classrooms and teachers to be reflective on their practice. Evaluations are to be a “good faith effort” of both the teacher and evaluator.
The new design provides significant flexibility. Teachers meet with their evaluator and may decide on the number and length of observations, and whether the feedback will be written or verbal . Teachers and evaluators are jointly responsible for documenting the evaluation process – called a professional growth/learning log.
To avoid the previous problem of grading teachers, only two evaluation categories are included in the new system instead of five – teachers on a growth track and considered to be effective and teachers on an intensive track and considered to be ineffective.
The intensive track is for teachers who need immediate support and attention. These teachers have documented issues that remain even after attempting to problem-solve. The district’s human resources director and the BEA are notified, and the teacher has just 60 days to make improvements on specified areas.
Once placed on the intensive track, a support team meeting is held (including a representative from the superintendent and BEA), and an improvement plan is developed. The plan includes a re-statement of the issues, a clear set of reasonable expectations, action steps to meet the expectations and a timeline. Classroom observations are made at least every other week, and the support team meets midway through the process to adjust the plan if necessary. At the end of 60 days, the teacher’s performance is reviewed for next step.
The district says its core belief that all teachers can improve their skills with coaching, feedback and reflective questions is working. According to members of the evaluation subcommittee, as long as teachers commit to improving, make a genuine effort and show progress on meeting the quality components, they continue to teach on the growth track.
The New Teacher Evaluation System: The Teacher’s Perspective
The two teachers in 27J interviewed for this case study praised the coaching aspect of the new evaluation system. “In the past, teachers just counted up Es and Ps and hoped they didn't have any Us,” said one teacher. “Now I’m not going for a grade. I know I’m doing a good job and my evaluator knows I’m doing a good job.”
The learning log, referred to by one teacher as an “electronic keepsake” where the coaching conversations are kept needs to be better managed so that it can be used more effectively for professional growth. (This summer the district will be asking a consultant to review a sample of learning logs to identify more – and more appropriate – professional learning opportunities for teachers based on their needs.)
This same teacher was well-known for the reflection she put into her teaching. Recently, she was asked to talk out loud to a group of teachers and administrators on what goes through her mind when she reflects. This helped teachers reflect in similar ways.
This same amount of thought went into the selection of her personal goal for the past academic year. She waited until late September when she knew her students better and selected just one goal from the Seven Strategies – engaging students in their own self-reflection, and having them keep track of and share their learning. (See more on Seven Strategies in the Instructional section below.) She has been trying to get her students to reflect on their own learning. “So this could be writing a note to themselves or to me on an objective or lesson,” she said. “We communicate back and forth and have a log going. The best part of the growth plan is the extra conversations I get to have with my evaluator. We talk and reason it out and I ask advice – such as getting groups of kids on task. These conversations weren’t happening before this new system. …Ultimately, what I really love is being in my classroom. I feel blessed to do it and have the kids I get to teach.”
Another teacher, new to 27J, values the multiple snapshots of his teaching rather than the summative evaluation used in his previous district. This year he picked two growth goals – one to improve his content knowledge and another to build rapport and have better management strategies with his students since he was new to the district.
“My principal comes into my classroom every 20-30 days. One or two days later he shares what he wrote in my log. Then I self reflect. At the end of the year there is a final reflection – whether I have met my goals and if I want to keep them for next year or set new goals.”
This teacher would like even more feedback from colleagues teaching the same subject. His induction mentor is across town in another building. “I would like to talk with teachers in other schools to learn from them. If we had this time we could also write common assessments.” Right now these teachers get together on their own time.
Using the Essential Learning Targets (ELTs) as content guides he supplements his learning goals by going to clinics and seminars, collaborating with colleagues, doing web research and reading professional journals.
Finally, he noted that SB-191 will evaluate teachers on performance rather than seniority. He felt he would have kept his last job if lay-offs had been based on performance.
Teaching is a complex. Strong teaching includes a dense list of practices towards a myriad of long term objectives and then scoped and sequenced into a minute by minute plan. Further, teachers must be prepared to make moves based on the skills and understanding not only of the entire class, but of the individual student need at the moment. Teaching is really, really complex. Strong teaching is not a checklist. It is an algorithm of practices used in the right way and at the right moment. There is research on practices that have more weight and less weight based and their practices teachers really shouldn’t do. (Check out the work of John Hattie https://visible-learning.org/.) But given teaching’s complexity, what is the best way to support a teacher’s journey in growing his or her practice?
27J understands and respects that all of us are accountable for student achievement and for meeting professional standards and we understand that teaching is fundamentally about learning and growing a practice, that mastery is the goal but is never perfected. 27J understands that the best practitioners are life-long professional learners who work every day to be better for their students.
With this is mind, we expect our school administrators to be instructional coaches, in the classroom supporting teachers in growing their practice. We expect teachers to bring a “Growth Mindset” to their practice every day. (See researcher Carol Dweck talk about Growth Mindset https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve.) We support these beliefs in our innovative evaluation system that focuses the teacher and the evaluator on growth. Check out our evaluation system in this website.
The Thinking Classroom challenges the traditional teacher-student dynamic at every level, stressing the most important impact on a student’s learning and growth results from their own thinking and hard work.
District 27J Director of Student Achievement Will Pierce said the system-wide model “has been gathering momentum for a long time.”
“A Thinking Classroom challenges all 27J classrooms to use strategies that activate students as learners, playing a larger role as thinker and driver of their own learning and challenges our students with higher learning rigor that the new Common Core and Colorado Academic Standards help define,” Pierce said.
Based on the premise that compliant learning no longer work for the student or teacher, thinking classrooms seek to eradicate practices that have produced disengaged and uninspired students; teachers prone to lecturing and over-helping; and systems driven by mandates and guidelines that robbed professional educators of both autonomy and responsibility.
“We have wanted more from our teachers than to talk, test, and grade. We want more from our students than to just show up, be quiet, and do what is told of you. We are preparing our students for a world where we don’t even know what exists,” Pierce said.
“Information is everywhere and if we are going to prepare our kids for a successful future, we must have them stop memorizing facts and start thinking about how they may use information to solve complex world problems,” he said.
Each district school has latitude in how it approaches and implements the thinking classroom. Every classroom must have clear goals, discernible evidence of growth, and learning experiences that challenge and engage students to participate, ultimately producing a thinking district.
While Pierce understands it is human nature to resist drastic change, the lines of communication are open.
“In some places, where the teacher is skilled at this practice, kids are responding with great energy, thought, increased responsibility and ownership for their learning. Other students are stunned by the overwhelming idea of responsibility and the expectation of participation,” he said.
He said parents who are also products of the “traditional educational game and struggle with some of the concepts” have come to “love the idea and agree with the philosophy and preparing our kids for a world that don’t yet know.”
Twenty-one-year veteran teacher Julie Schwab is in her 11th year as a fifth-grade teacher in District 27J and her eighth year utilizing the thinking classroom. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 caused a shift in her thinking.
“The teacher as ‘the keeper of knowledge’ had to go,” she said. “I had to ask myself whether the learning I was presenting my students was providing them surface knowledge or depth of knowledge? Were the students given the opportunity to meaningfully interact with the content and transfer the knowledge they were acquiring through authentic tasks across the content areas?”
Schwab’s program is gleaned from a range of experts (Benjamin Bloom, Carol Ann Tomlinson, Nancy Johnson, Robert Marzano, Susan Drake, Shari Tishman) in the field of creating classrooms that actively engage students. She said intentionality, purpose and clarity of target are the main elements/objectives of the thinking classroom.
“Planning, with the end in mind, the level and the rigor of questions asked is key to the thinking classroom. Identifying the purpose for learning and how I will take students from point A to point Z is necessary in the preparation and planning of lessons and units,” Schwab said.
When students and parents embrace the methodology, results can be transformative.
“When given the opportunity to work through the struggle on their own, what the child gains is a new sense of self and what is possible through continual practice, hard work and perseverance,” Schwab said. “As parents watch this magical transformation occur, they themselves are then transformed into believers and advocates of the Thinking Classroom as well.”
Pierce and Schwab agreed technology is a complementary piece of the overall plan, used to enhance, inspire and spark creativity in learning.
Does the Thinking Classroom work? The improvement in academic achievement is measurable. Schwab said she has seen consistent gains by all her students on the state assessment (TCAP) with 90 to 100 percent making at least one year’s growth and at least 80 percent scoring proficient or advanced in reading, writing and math.
“Outside of state assessments, the quality and depth of thinking in daily student work is quite dramatic,” she concluded.