An Education Revolution

New York State lawmakers and school administrators have worked tirelessly to reform the state’s education system over the past few years through such methods as the redesigning of state tests, the adaptation of the common core curriculum, and an increase in the quantity and difficulty of teacher evaluations. Even as many of these methods have been implemented with the intention of improving the performance of both student and teacher, research and feedback from both ends suggest that teacher evaluations specifically have had little if any positive effect on either demographic. Formal evaluations are planned out in advance through an appointment with a school administrator where the teacher presents a lesson plan of what he or she has carefully considered teaching during the evaluation. The administrator will observe the teacher on the day that they have both agreed on for the entire class period, about forty minutes, and give feedback to the teacher in a follow-up appointment. These are often favored by teachers considering the disadvantages which the alternative evaluation offers. An informal evaluation, also known as a “pop-in” or a “walk through” is unlike a formal evaluation in the sense that it is a surprise visit from an administrator who randomly observes a very specific characteristic of a teacher’s lesson, as opposed to multiple characteristics of the lesson, and grades the teacher on a one to four scale rubric dependent on how efficiently they utilize the characteristic in their lesson. These evaluations are the opposite of their formal counterpart: shorter, unplanned, unprepared for, and too quick for comfort; they are the stuff of a teacher’s nightmares.     

In an informal evaluation, teachers feel as though they are obligated to play a game or put on a show while being observed, rather than attaining the necessary feedback to improve their skill; they feel as though they have more of a responsibility to deliver to an administrator for fifteen seconds every few weeks rather than to their students every single day. To ensure that teachers are benefiting from the informal evaluations issued by their administrators, these evaluations should be reformed in a way that offers the teachers greater flexibility, more coherent feedback, and less uncertainty overall about what is required of them to better their ability.


Increase In Evaluation, Increase In Outrage

Informal evaluations take place regularly across the state with the intended purpose of improving teacher performance. Many teachers, however, believe that these evaluations are in some ways hindering their performance rather than helping it. The majority of teachers at Altmar-Parish-Williamstown Junior-Senior High School in Parish, New York share this belief. In September of 2015, the school’s administration decided to appoint administrators from both inside and outside the district to evaluate the teachers’ abilities by means of both formal and informal evaluations at an increased rate from prior years. Following this revelation, a mass hysteria of sorts was born among the school’s staff members who saw the evaluations as an additional source of stress in a field where there is already enough pressure placed upon them to sufficiently teach their students.

“We are told in advance what the administrator will be looking for,” explains Shaun Carter, a current English teacher at APW Jr-Sr High School. “They do two or three walk-throughs where they look for two to three specific characteristics each month,” Carter notes that last year, the walk-throughs consisted of one monthly evaluation which looked for only one specific characteristic; a tactic that made it difficult for teachers to produce the desired result in a fifteen minute time slot. The odds that they may be implementing the characteristic that the administrator is observing at any random time were extremely low.                      

The changes that have most recently been made to the school’s evaluation process, designed by the teacher’s union with the intention of increasing the number of characteristics being observed at one time by an administrator, have made it a little more likely that a teacher will be able to produce the desired result within the fifteen minute time slot. Because of this reform, Carter considers the newly renovated evaluations to have a very positive outcome, overall. However, he manages to point out where there is still room for improvement. “Even though it helps that the administrators are now looking for three characteristics to grade us on, the tactic seems to work most efficiently only when the three characteristics relate to each other,” he says. “If you have an evaluation that is grading questioning techniques and class engagement, you are likely to have a better outcome with your observation because the characteristics make sense together, whereas if you have a rubric that calls for characteristics that don’t really relate to each other, like questioning techniques and classroom arrangement, a good score will be a lot less easy to attain. Some of the characteristics work well together, and some of them don’t.” Carter’s argument sheds light on what is still the major problem with the walk-throughs; despite what reform they have gone through over the past year, they still occur too randomly. There is still great unlikeliness that a teacher would be able to apply whatever characteristics are demanded of them on the spot if someone suddenly walked into their classroom during a lesson and began grading their skill, unless those characteristics correlate with one another, as Carter suggests.


Playing The Game

Just as traumatizing for the teachers as the randomness of the informal evaluations is what they feel obligated to do in order to score satisfactorily on the rubrics. Andrew Knight, a former physics teacher who left Altmar Parish Williamstown last year, partially due to the turmoil caused by these evaluations, describes the nearly cunning extremes a teacher would go to in order to receive a good grade. “People would just apply whatever the rubric was asking for to the best of their ability whenever an administrator walked in, even if it didn’t relate to the lesson.” Once in his class, Knight was going over a review for a test when an administrator came in. The administrator was looking for verbal questioning techniques, which wouldn’t have applied to Knight’s class seeing as the kids already knew the material and were accustomed to just spouting off the answers without needing any techniques to provoke them. Knight had prompted the kids prior to the evaluator arriving that in the event that he was to be evaluated at random, they would execute the scripted material he had planned for them. “I told the kids to do a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down action whenever I explained something to them, even though in reality, they already knew what I was talking about.  I would ask a question and review the answer with them, and then they would be expected to give me a thumbs up or thumbs down if they felt confident with the material. I actually ended up getting a four on that evaluation. The administrator loved my questioning techniques.” Knight is only one of many teachers in the district who put on a show to impress the evaluators. Immediately, the evaluation is made invalid in cases like this because the teacher is focusing so hard on getting a grade that will not spoil their record that they perform what is asked of them fraudulently, even if it does not apply to their lesson at all; both the teacher’s representation of their teaching and the feedback the administrator gives them on that teaching are inaccurate, and so the teacher does not learn or reflect on anything. The argument here, of course, is that there is no room for the teacher to learn or reflect the feedback their evaluator has given them because they are so worried about the score they receive. Whoever might consider Knight’s actions dishonest is only partially correct in their assertions, and they may also wish to consider that these measures have been taken in fear and anxiousness; a fear and anxiousness that has overshadowed the true purpose of their occupation. “I want to focus on teaching and helping the kids, not playing the game and jumping through the hoop so I can get my score,” Knight says. His disdain for the evaluation process lies in the realm that he rightfully considers his career to be a profession and not a game.


Making The Grade

The most widely feared attribute of the informal evaluation process is, of course, the score that accompanies it. It is essential to note that if a teacher receives a score of one or two, it will be documented on their permanent record. Just as noteworthy is the concept that a teacher who receives too many low scores will be advised to enroll in a teacher improvement plan, in which they will be asked to endure more walkthroughs and create more lesson plans based on amending their skill. Though the teachers who frequently receive these low scores are often the ones who have the most room for improvement, it is still a daunting contemplation for some of the most successful teachers that the faulted informal evaluation process will result in their imperfect record. While Carter has never received a score lower than a three, he still readily insists that the scoring method is in need of immense improvement considering the amount of fear it insights. “That one or two score is still a black cloud for a lot of people, including myself,” he says, “I mean, a one or two on my permanent record; that is the record that guarantees me my paycheck. I have a family to support with that paycheck and I am fearful of any evaluation of my work ethic complicating that.” One of the most distressing complications that Carter is referring to would be the increased difficulty that transpires for a teacher to find a new job as long as there are bad marks on their record from their previous job. The anxiety he feels regarding the walk-through scores is shared by many APW teachers. They see the number as a burden because it questions their ability and often does not provide them with the adequate feedback to improve that ability, or it leaves them with a mark on their record that may very well be ill-considered.

Why It Does Work, But It Could Work Better

Not everyone has seen the informal evaluations as a negative strategy. Nick Lee, a former seventh-grade science teacher and present academic coordinator at APW Jr-Sr High School, sees both sides of the issue, and unlike his colleagues, has not let the dreaded walk-throughs affect him negatively. Lee has improved, in fact, since the evaluations began. “I personally think it makes me a better teacher because it makes me very cognizant of whatever characteristic they are asking me for a couple weeks. Once that few weeks are up and they are done observing us for that characteristic, I find that I am still applying it to classes even in the present time.”  Lee sees a lot of the concerns voiced by his colleagues to be a little unfounded in the sense that their focus is not on what the real purpose of the evaluations is. “Yes, you can cheat the system. Yes, you can do this one thing that is required of you over and over again for two weeks just to get a good score, but I don’t know why someone would,” Lee says perplexedly. “If you would give the kids really good questioning techniques for say, two weeks, then I would suggest that as a professional, you would notice a very positive response from kids in terms of their learning. Why would you do something that you know is really good for kids and then stop doing it?” While a lot of the points Lee makes are extremely valid, it is important to consider that everyone handles stress differently, and even though Lee handles the evaluations with ease, the majority of APW teachers do not, which suggests that evaluations are not very effective. Lee is aware that he is very alone in his opinion of the evaluations; however, he does make a good point that the evaluations are still necessary for their intended purpose. In order to fulfill that purpose, they will simply need some amending.


Reforming the Informal Evaluations

While Carter, Knight, and Lee each take their own unique stance on the informal evaluations, they all agree that there is room for reform. Lee, who is one of the evaluations’ biggest supporters unexpectedly provided some of the best constructive criticism. “A lot of the time, it depends on the administrator who evaluates you. You could get someone who knows a lot about education and gives great feedback, or you could have someone who knows very little and gives poor feedback. One thing that could improve the evaluations is by creating a process that improves instruction but also improves feedback. Where teachers should be expected to reflect on the feedback they receive, administrators should be expected to reflect on the feedback they give.” What Lee suggests is an evaluation process which works almost like a compromise between teachers and their administrators, where both are evaluated for their part. “I am a squeaky wheel, a huge self-advocator,” says Lee, “When I don’t understand the feedback, I always seek out the administrator and discuss my evaluation in greater detail so I can understand what I did wrong, but when people aren’t willing to self-advocate, I still believe those people should be given the opportunity to receive good feedback.” While Lee suggests that the best way to improve the evaluations is by improving the quality of feedback by the administrators, another source suggests that administrators acting as evaluators be done away with, altogether. Eric Feeney’s Design Principles for Learning to Guide Teacher Walk-Throughs proposes that the most accurate form of evaluation is administered by other teachers. “It is about teachers gaining an understanding of their current practice and then acting to improve based on what they see, rather than someone from the outside telling them what they need,” Feeney states. He then goes on to comment on what makes the administration-based evaluations ineffective. “In an era of high-stakes accountability, even the best professional developers will disregard design principles for learning to push for immediate results,” he says, best characterizing the flaw. “As a consequence, teachers feel pressured and experience professional development that is not useful for improving teaching and student learning.” Considering the extreme measures teachers have taken previously while being evaluated by administrators, and how an administrator’s presence has affected the teachers psychologically, relinquishing that pressure may effectively improve teacher performance.

Conclusion: Restoring a Teacher’s True Purpose

What can be concurred from the investigation of informal evaluations and their ineffectiveness is that there are many important variables which play into their reform. Better communication between administrators and teachers or even better communication between teachers and teachers without any administrative interference may enhance the effects these evaluations have on teacher performance. Considering what the teachers at Altmar Parish Williamstown Junior-Senior High School have told us, as well as  Eric Feeney’s scholarly research, one thing is for sure: once there are significant improvements made to the informal evaluation process, a career as a teacher will no longer be a game of chance, a lottery of scores, a stress show. No longer will a teacher’s main priority be to be taught as the current evaluations suggest, but rather to do what their profession already chiefly demands of them: to teach.

The State University at Potsdam
English and Writing

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