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Teachers Warming to In-Class Observations

Tennessee teachers view the state’s new evaluation procedure more favorably now than when implemented, a recent survey from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College suggests.

The study found teachers are more receptive to classroom evaluations when they see them as a tool for improving teaching, not as just a way to judge performance.

“Teachers who viewed the evaluation process as focused on teaching improvement tended to engage with the system to a far greater extent than teachers who saw the process as one aimed only at judging their performance,” said Nate Schwartz, director of the Tennessee Department of Education’s Office of Research and Policy.

The new evaluation system was implemented in 2010 after Tennessee was awarded more than $501 million from the federal government to reform its public education system. Among the reforms adopted as part of the grant were: adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments for students; building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

The main reform that concerned teachers was a change to teacher tenure laws that ties student performance to classroom evaluations. Since the change to tenure laws, the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development has contracted with the TDOE’s Office of Research and Policy to study teacher opinion on the reforms.

And those opinions look to be changing, according to state education officials.

“Through multiple survey measures (First to the Top being one of them), we have seen that teachers in Tennessee feel that the evaluation system has been implemented with fidelity,” said Kelli Gauthier, communications director of the Tennessee Department of Education.

That faith has translated to a better perception of the state’s teacher evaluation system from both teachers and observers. The most recent study, which asked 26,000 teachers about the First to the Top reforms, suggests both teachers and observers like the teacher evaluation system better in 2013 than in previous years, but half of the teachers surveyed are still unconvinced of the evaluation’s overall value.

But when teachers do find value in the process, they respond more favorably to the current observation system. The value is found in feedback and instructions for improving teaching methods, rather than observers judging their classroom performance, according to the study.

Dan Lawson, the superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, said most teachers welcome a chance to improve and hope teacher observations are part and parcel of improving learning, rather than quantifying teacher performance.

“Teaching is a complex process integrating relationship building, content knowledge, the craft of instructional delivery and the art of interacting with children. As much as some love the idea of quantifying everything, I fear that such a practice tends to diminish the complexity of my profession,” said Lawson, who has long been critical of Tennessee’s education reform initiatives.

Lawson said the evaluation process was developed as a way to improve teaching quality, but that observations are not “sufficient to identify a quality teacher.” He is also concerned the reforms encourage teaching to the test.

“Teachers may be led to better ‘scores’ on the rubric, but those scores may be negated by a single (student) test score. This challenge leads many to ask a pertinent, but in my mind misplaced question: ‘How do I get my kids to earn higher TCAP scores?’,” he said.

Regardless of how administrators and teachers feel about the evaluation process, Tennessee students have seen growth on state assessments.

“While we attribute that growth to a variety of things, we absolutely believe that Race to the Top initiatives, such as our teacher evaluation system and the extensive professional development we have given to teachers through the grant, played a part,” Gauthier said.

Tennessee has seen three years of growth on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, Gauthier said. She cited more than 20,000 more students are performing at grade-level in math now than in 2010 and “nearly 52,000 additional students are at or above grade level in all science subjects, as compared to 2010.”

Add improving teacher attitudes toward the evaluation to growing TCAP scores and Tennessee’s education system is moving in the right direction, she said.

“Tennessee has been recognized nationally as a leader in improving public education, and in many ways, Race to the Top created the environment for us to accomplish this work, with broad support from a variety of stakeholders,” Gauthier said. “I believe that our results speak for themselves.”