Harkin-Enzi’s ESEA reauthorization bill attempts to find a middle ground on teacher and principal evaluations. On one hand, you have the Senate Republican plan supported by Secretary of Education-turned-Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would give states the option to develop these kinds of evaluation systems. On the other, you have the Obama administration’s ESEA waiver package that requires states to not only develop such systems, but to use the results to “inform personnel decisions.” To follow through on this requirement in many states would require significant changes to union contracts. Senators Harkin and Enzi tried to land somewhere in between, requiring states to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems – based on both student achievement and classroom observations – and use the results to provide meaningful feedback and to inform professional development decisions … not high-stakes decisions about tenure and dismissal. (I’m not saying that the new teacher and principal evaluations won’t influence these types of decisions, but we’ll get into that in a later blog post.)
Even with this more balanced approach, the major teachers unions have expressed concern over the evaluation provisions in the Harkin-Enzi bill, while embracing the Alexander approach (see, Republicans and unions can get along!). But wouldn’t teachers want to receive useful feedback about their performance and meaningful professional development tailored to the things they really need to know? Professional development correlated with teachers’ evaluations and specific needs helps to establish a system of continuous improvement; to improve teacher quality, especially in low-performing schools, it is necessary to not only bring in great teachers but to also improve the teachers already there.
Teacher evaluators and teacher coaches play two very different roles. The former depends on an independent, unbiased relationship with teachers and deep knowledge of what good teaching looks like. Successful coaches, however, need the knowledge and skills, but also have to build a personal, trusting relationship with teachers. Atul Gawande’s recent essay in the New Yorker described one successful model for coaching teachers developed by Jim Knight. Knight says the best coaches: “speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves.” The skills that make a good evaluator don’t always align with those that make a good coach.
However, in all the hubbub around teacher evaluations and value-added data, less attention has been paid to coaching… even as the need for better professional development and support has grown along with the development of new evaluation methods. In Education Sector’s inside look at DC’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system, we wrote: “teachers, appreciative as they may be of the post-observation feedback, consistently say they want a stronger connection between support and evaluation.” Given the importance of coaching and the demand for it from teachers and principals as part of evaluation systems, the emphasis on professional development in the Harkin-Enzi bill is a welcome change.