My first year teaching, when I was sinking far more often than I was swimming, I believed that great teachers are born, not made. In my (sleep-deprived) mind, I was not one of them. I did not have their inspirational charisma and superhuman work ethic, so I could never be a great teacher. Today, I still believe that some teachers are great almost from the moment they walk into the classroom. For the rest of us, we become great through reflective practice, effective support, and indefatigable commitment.
Teacher evaluation—including teacher observation and student achievement data— plays a critical role in reflective practice and effective support by providing an individualized assessment of a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. Yesterday, the National Council of Teacher Quality released “State of the States: Trends and Early Lessons on Teacher Evaluation and Effectiveness Policies.” In the report, NCTQ documents rapidly evolving state policies on teacher evaluation. In the last three years, 33 states, many of them motivated by the promise of Race to the Top funding, made changes to teacher evaluation policy.
Some of the policy changes are process-oriented—for example, 25 states now require annual evaluations for all teachers. Many of the most revolutionary policy changes tie teacher evaluation to human capital decisions, such as awarding tenure, layoff criteria, and teacher compensation. It’s important, for example, that Indiana has transitioned from a seniority-based, “last in, first out” layoff policy to using teacher effectiveness. These are the kind of changes that grab media headlines and fire up teachers unions and edu-reformers.
But this masks the real revolution that’s occurring. The fundamental role of teacher evaluation is not determining who to fire or who receives tenure: teacher evaluation should help make teachers better by providing clear, targeted, individualized feedback to teachers, instructional coaches, and principals. In the report, NCTQ highlights that “teacher evaluation policy should reflect the purpose of helping all teachers improve, not just low-performers.” While low performers need extra support, teacher evaluation should be used to make all teachers more effective. We can recruit super-teachers, but we’ll have many more if we can learn to build them.