Make Teacher Peer Evaluation Happen

January 9, 2011 at 7:33 pm Leave a comment

posted by Steven Evangelista ’01, co-director Harlem Link Charter School, NYC

Forget the fuss.  Let’s put in the hard work required to involve teachers in evaluating each other.

As is often the case when complex topics are debated in the media, creative thinking is a casualty in the current hubbub over whether school districts should publicly release teacher value-added scores.  Reformers on both “sides” are digging their trenches so fast and sternly that they are missing the busy bees on the surface spreading good ideas like pollen.

Deputy Chancellor John White, even while staunchly defending the controversial metric, said much the same himself in a letter to the New York Times published on New Year’s Day: “It would be unfair to claim that any one statistic, such as newly developed ‘value-added data,’ should stand alone as definitive evidence of a teacher’s effectiveness.”

One such idea is including a peer component in teacher evaluations.  This practice has been tried in some districts, most notably in Ohio, in some form since the 1980s.  But the fact that it requires a nuanced and locally specific structure – a strength that is a counterbalance to value-added data – makes it difficult if not impossible to bring to scale.  For this reason and others, I’m doubtful that the idea has been given a fair shake.

In other professions, peer evaluation is the norm, along with feedback from one’s superiors and direct reports.  Teachers deserve “360-degree feedback”; they occupy one of the most complex, demanding professions around.  Supervisors should have at their disposal more data and more diverse sources of information.

I know from experience that as a teacher surrounded by one’s four walls and focused so tightly on one’s classroom, it’s hard to see the big picture of what a school community needs as a whole.  But teachers have valid opinions about the practices of their colleagues that simply can’t be ignored, opinions that are sometimes more pointed and helpful than those of administrators.

At our school, building the boat as we’ve been sailing for the past five years, we have not yet incorporated peer feedback into teacher evaluation in a meaningful way.  But we have laid the groundwork with teacher leadership through school walkthroughs, teacher-facilitated lesson study observations and teacher coaching.

We already trust our teachers to give meaningful feedback.  For example, teachers are heavily involved in the hiring process.  Our teachers observe and debrief teacher candidates’ demonstration lessons, and recommend student teachers for a temporary or permanent assignment when a vacancy arises.  Anecdotal evidence tells me that while teacher leadership opportunities (outside of the traditional, Peter Principle-plagued ladder climbing to Assistant Principal, Principal, district office, etc.) are scattershot, these feedback opportunities in the hiring process are more commonplace.  Should teachers’ opinions stop counting once a colleague signs on the dotted line?

Some critics of this idea – especially those stumbling over the sins of a toxic work environment – would question teachers’ willingness to criticize their colleagues when necessary.  After all, why wouldn’t a teacher concerned about protecting his or her own hide take it easy on a colleague in exchange for the same treatment back?  One clear answer is that a strong process with purposeful layers of feedback and oversight will prevent such an indulgence.

A better answer is that as constant learners, committed teachers are their own harshest critics—and when relationships with families and students are involved, that value extends to colleagues.  Those who work hard and take pride in their students’ success, who have strong bonds throughout the school community and are focused on children, will not stand for a teacher in the next grade faltering and ruining their hard work.  By the same token, imagine the motivation to help a teacher in a lower grade get it right when the evaluator will be teaching the affected students in only a few months!

Finally, if folks aren’t willing to be honest when it comes to student results, then the school community has bigger problems than incompetence.  In other words, a modicum of two-way trust is required for this process to work.  But rather than an obstacle, that’s another reason why fretting over value-added data is beside the point; without a supportive, trusting environment, it’s a fool’s errand to evaluate teachers anyway.

Steven Evangelista co-founded Harlem Link Charter School in 2005 after teaching in Harlem public schools through Teach For America beginning in 1998.  In his role as Co-Director for Operations, he oversees all of the district-office level functions at Harlem Link and continues to guide implementation of its mission and vision.  He is also an alumnus of Hunter College High School, Georgetown University, and the Building Excellent Schools fellowship.  This post also appears on the Harlem Link blog.

Entry filed under: assessment, collaboration, dialogue, leadership, policy, school reform, teacher education. Tags: .

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