Gist on Central Falls and the Importance of Evaluations
Rick Hess at EdWeek interviewed RI Ed. Commissioner Deborah Gist in light of the recent agreement between Central Falls teachers and Superintendent Frances Gallo. Hess’ focus was on the importance of a good evaluation system for making reform work.
Rick Hess: The deal turns critically on the teacher evaluation component that’ll be introduced next year (with unsatisfactory teachers targeted for termination). How will we know whether the evaluation is sufficiently tough, or whether it becomes a fig leaf for backing away from more painful measures?
Deborah Gist: There are a couple of ways that we’ll know. One is that the administration has the complete authority to put the evaluation into place. The agreement says the evaluation will be put into place solely by the management. And the Board of Regents passed regulations that define what the evaluations have to look like in this state. The guidelines are good and strong, and everything that we’re doing is based on those.
RH: Okay, but suppose that, at this time next year, we see that just five or six of the school’s 93 teachers are removed. Would observers be right to be skeptical that the process was toothless?
DG: It’s not about removing any particular percentage of teachers. It’s hard to know what the proper percentage would look like. But I strongly encourage people to be skeptical. We should be skeptical. I want people to take a hard look at us, and I’m going to do the same with the district and with my staff. But it’s not about the percentage of teachers we remove. It’s about the quality of the evaluation and about performance. I expect there will be turnover, but how much there is remains to be seen….
RH: What do you say to critics who might ask how you can leave the faculty intact for another year at a school that you’ve identified as profoundly low-performing?
DG: We don’t take this decision lightly. We take it very seriously. But there are some great teachers at the high school and, because teacher evaluation is so poor around the country and in the state, we don’t have good evidence as to who should stay and who should not. This deal gives us the opportunity to make those decisions in a more informed way and gives folks the opportunity to be a part of the reform movement. There are examples of groups of teachers coming together to turn their schools around in various communities, and there’s no reason to assume it can’t happen here. We’re going to give teachers that chance. Our expectations are high. We’ll be watching carefully. If they’re not ready to deliver results, we’ll act upon that rapidly.
As research conducted by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has shown (outlined in their report, “The Widget Effect” — PDF and website), the teacher evaluation process is woefully inept nationwide. The TNTP’s “Widget Effect” is largely a by-product of the industrial era/collective-bargaining system whereby school districts and unions have come to view and treat teachers as identical widgets in the educational machinery. The operating assumption is that the vast majority of teachers are all equally effective. In the districts that TNTP studied:
All teachers are rated good or great – In districts that use binary evaluation ratings (generally “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”), more than 99 percent of teachers receive the satisfactory rating. Districts that use a broader range of rating options do little better; in these districts, 94 percent of teachers receive one of the top two ratings and less than 1 percent are rated unsatisfactory.
That’s simply impossible and unrealistic. While such a flawed system clearly overstates the effectiveness of the average teacher (and being a teacher of “average” effectiveness isn’t a net negative, by the way), worse is that they diminish the real effectiveness of those who truly are superior educators. Further, these evaluation systems are not fair to new teachers and teachers who are average or good but still have areas that need improvement.
73 percent of teachers surveyed said their most recent evaluation did not identify any development areas, and only 45 percent of teachers who did have development areas identified said they received useful support to improve….Though it is widely recognized that teachers are least effective in their beginning years, 66 percent of novice teachers received a rating greater than “satisfactory” on their most recent performance evaluation….Despite uniformly positive evaluation ratings, teachers and administrators both recognize ineffective teaching in their schools. In fact, 81 percent of administrators and 58 percent of teachers say there is a tenured teacher in their school who is performing poorly, and 43 percent of teachers say there is a tenured teacher who should be dismissed for poor performance.
But instituting an evaluation system won’t be easy thanks to the culture that has developed in which, teachers–even novice teachers–expect to be given the highest rating. And why not? They’ve never been evaluated any differently (everybody wins)!
Our research reflects that there is a strong and logical expectation among teachers that they will receive outstanding performance ratings. While the vast majority of teachers receive the highest rating, those teachers who do not receive it tend to believe that the higher rating was warranted….Even teachers who are just beginning their careers believe they deserve the highest performance ratings and are dissatisfied if they are rated good, not great. This inflated sense of performance is evident in the self-assessment ratings of novice teachers. In a subset of districts where teachers were asked to assess their own instructional performance on a scale of 1 to 10, 69 percent of novice teachers rated their instructional performance an 8 or higher.
In a system where negative or even less than perfect performance ratings are given only rarely, teachers naturally develop an expectation that they will be among the large majority considered top performers. In this context, teachers perceive low or negative ratings not in terms of what they communicate about performance but as a personally-directed insult or attack. The response is understandable in the context of the current system, where so few teachers get critical feedback of any kind. When their evaluation does include criticism, they feel as though they have been singled out while other examples of poor performance go unaddressed.
This creates a culture in which teachers are strongly resistant to receiving an evaluation rating that suggests their practice needs improvement. Schools then find themselves in a vicious cycle; administrators generally do not accurately evaluate poor performance, leading to an expectation of high performance ratings, which, in turn, cause administrators to face stiff cultural resistance when they do issue even marginally negative evaluations. The result is a dysfunctional school community in which performance problems cannot be openly identified or addressed.
That’s why teacher “buy-in” is so important to effect change. Of course, that doesn’t mean that change requires that the current teachers buy in, just that you find teachers who will.
There’s much more good stuff in “The Widget Effect” report, but the bottom line is that implementing a robust and fair evaluation system is extremely important for moving forward with school reform.
ADDENDUM: Writing elsewhere, Hess is supportive of the Central Falls deal, noting:
The Rhode Island story is a truly encouraging development….this story shows how leaders with backbone can eventually force union leadership to accept a new reality. Yes, Gallo walked back the bold action that won her many education reformers’ approval, but good management is about discipline, not bloodlust. The point of school turnarounds is not to count scalps, but to win necessary changes, force out lousy teachers, and reset the board.