By Anna Duncan
Last week, thousands of National Education Association (NEA) teacher representatives gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss union policies and activities at their annual meeting. Among the many New Business Items (NBIs) up for discussion was a proposal for the NEA to survey state and local teacher evaluation systems and to publish a report for use in advocating against the use of student's achievement scores in these systems. It is unclear whether the NBI will result in concrete action by the NEA. Either way, the proposal's contribution to the ongoing debate around the use of student outcomes in evaluating teachers' performance is notable.
This isn't the first time the NEA has voiced its distaste for including student performance in teacher evaluation. In 2014, the NEA amended its teacher evaluation policy statement to clearly oppose the inclusion of students' standardized test scores. And NEA members aren't the only ones who continue to fixate on this topic. In the wake of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states like Alaska and Delaware have focused legislative attention on restricting the use of student outcomes in teacher evaluations as well.
As a report by Third Way argued earlier this year, it is time for a more productive debate around teacher evaluations. Instead of rehashing old debates around the inclusion of student achievement, the education field should instead be asking, "How can we retool teacher evaluation systems to focus on professional growth in addition to accountability?"
Instead of rehashing old debates around the inclusion of student achievement, the education field should instead be asking, "How can we retool teacher evaluation systems to focus on professional growth in addition to accountability?"
One answer to this question that has emerged in recent discussions (such as those facilitated by New America, The Aspen Institute, and Third Way) is the use of formalized teacher leadership roles. The potential teacher leadership systems have to serve as a key link between teacher evaluation and professional learning becomes evident in a report released earlier this year by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) and Pearson. The NNSTOY report examines eight different district- and school-wide initiatives to develop formalized teacher leadership roles. While these initiatives vary, each provides teachers with formal opportunities to lead their peers in professional learning opportunities while advancing along a clearly defined (and compensated) career path.
So where do teacher evaluations fit in? For starters, teacher leaders can help formally evaluate their peers. Teacher leaders in formal evaluation roles can lighten the load for school principals, who-unlike leaders in other professions-are often expected to have primary responsibility for evaluating all of their staff's performance, in addition to their operational and other management responsibilities. Three out of the eight initiatives NNSTOY examined-Scottsdale, AZ, Knox County, TN, and Denver, CO-use teacher leaders as formal peer evaluators, a practice for which New America's recent Beyond Ratings report advocates. Not only did the integration of teacher leaders free up principals' time in these districts, but NNSTOY found that it also contributed to teachers' perceptions of their evaluation systems as positive, and growth-oriented.
In addition, teacher leaders can also strengthen the link between teachers' evaluations and professional learning opportunities. Teacher leaders who observe and assist in evaluating their peers, either formally or informally, can help provide them with more frequent feedback and coaching on their practice. They can also integrate their observation "findings" into the more formal professional development (PD) opportunities they lead. These regular interactions between teacher leaders and their peers can pay off. NNSTOY found that teachers in schools and LEAs with teacher leaders considered the PD they experienced to be more timely, personalized, and relevant than their previous PD norm.
Finally, six of the eight initiatives explicitly use teachers' past evaluation performance to identify their eligibility for teacher leader positions. Teachers at California's Aspire Summit Charter Academy, for example, are placed in one of five different teacher career stages given their level of performance in Aspire's evaluation system. Based on their career stage, teachers are then able to take on a variety of different leadership responsibilities, including mentoring other teachers, leading professional development, and observing their peers. This accentuates Aspire's evaluation system as one which goes beyond ratings alone to identify and develop the strengths of its teachers. Although this example highlights one local practice, states can also use their evaluation systems to identify and develop teacher leaders (as Tennessee does), and can create incentives for its districts to do the same.
As such, states and districts that adopt teacher leadership models could help shift their teacher evaluation debates to a more productive focus on using evaluation systems to promote teachers' professional growth. Of course, simply designating some teachers as peer leaders is not enough: teacher leaders must receive training and ongoing support in their new roles, as well as adequate time to work with the teachers they lead. And, as policymakers and practitioners implement new teacher leadership models, we must continue to review and discuss which models will work best to bring us closer to a system that helps all teachers and students reach their potential.