What a surprise!

A familiar argument in the teacher blame game goes like this: Public schools have bad teachers because of unions. The implication of this statement is that unions don’t care about teacher quality, and school districts lack the tools and authority to effectively evaluate teachers and dismiss those who fall short.  

A familiar complaint from teachers goes like this: Evaluation is superficial at best, and subjective or vindictive at worst.

Where is the truth? This question drove me to learn more about how the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District approaches teacher evaluation—something that is really important if you care about teacher quality. I am grateful that educators will talk with me about critical issues like this one, because researching this story blew apart my perceptions of teacher evaluation.

I learned that school district leaders, working in partnership with the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, have taken an old, punitive tool and made it into a valuable resource for developing a shared understanding of effective teaching, building professional respect among teachers and principals, and motivating teachers to continue to refine their professional expertise. These changes to the evaluation process have increased teacher quality by promoting growth among all teachers rather than narrowly focusing on weeding out a few bad apples.  

This is a far cry from the starting assumptions of my research. When I interviewed Dr. Nylajean McDaniel, director of human resources for the district, I thought of evaluation as a police function. The task: find those who are not doing their jobs and gather evidence to fire them. I was pleased to discover a totally different picture.

Everything changed in 2004, when the district adopted a set of standards that clearly define teacher quality—the essential competencies that make a difference to student learning. The district also recognized that expertise is developed over time, with experience and coaching. A team of teachers and administrators worked together to redesign the district’s teacher evaluation tools to connect with the standards and to focus more on the development of expertise.

Fairness is built into the Heights system. In addition to clearly defined procedures and timelines, the system uses a rubric that everyone has access to, which guides the way a teacher is rated on 23 components of effective practice. It is interactive, collaborative and evidence based. The final report goes beyond “yes, you can stay” or “no, you are fired.” This approach encourages principals and teachers to discuss their shared work—teaching and learning.

The evaluation process isn’t perfect. It depends on principals having real expertise in teaching, and using the process to be both supportive and critical. It depends on teachers welcoming feedback from their supervisors, and wanting to grow. But it attempts to bring people together, rather than put them at odds, doing work that is important to both parties. This collaborative spirit is just what we need to meet the high expectations we have set for our schools.

Here are my conclusions:

  • School districts have all the authority they need to dismiss teachers. In fact, teacher evaluation is mandated by law.
  • Expecting the system to be fair is not the same as resisting evaluation or protecting bad teachers.
  • Teachers want to be effective. Why else would they do this work?

A meaningful evaluation experience should help people become better at what they do. When evaluation focuses on the narrow goal of finding a few slackers to fire, it sets up a “we/they” defensive situation—a dynamic that spurs division and resentment among people who need to be as collaborative and supportive of one another as possible.

The Heights method shows that the evaluation process can be an opportunity for teachers and principals to focus together on something that is the priority for both of them: quality teaching. This constructive approach has a lot more promise for creating effective schools than the punitive strategies of anti-teacher policymakers.

Related Story: Learn about teacher evaluation at Roxboro Middle School.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and current member of the Home Repair Resource Center board of trustees.

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Volume 5, Issue 3, Posted 3:39 PM, 02.28.2012