Playing in the Sandbox of Evaluation Reform: Teacher as Observer
LAUSD and UTLA arrived at a tentative contract for the coming year – highly controversial and polarizing. Two LA teacher-led policy groups published stringent recommendations on teacher evaluation. California Superior Court judge James Chalfant ruled that student performance data must be included in evaluations, and Superintendent Deasy said that means AGT. During the final week of instruction, teachers at the high school level had those heart-wrenching conversations about graduating – or not. Teachers retired. Laid-off staff left schools, students, friends and colleagues behind for uncertain futures. Students looked forward to the least-promising economic prospects since the 1920’s.
We all worried about whether the Kings would take the Stanley Cup. Whew! At least that turned out all right.
And right in the middle of it all, I sat with about two dozen other teachers through three days of intensive training on LAUSD’s new evaluation system in order to be a peer observer. Yikes. This is serious business. It’s critically important for accurate, thorough, productive evaluation.
LAUSD’s new online evaluation system is highly rigorous. As a “pioneer” teacher, I evaluated myself on 63 points within Charlotte Danielson’s Teaching and Learning Framework, rating myself “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective” or “highly effective.” I reviewed my AGT, reflected on it, wrote an Individual Growth Plan, submitted my lessons… etc., etc., through about two dozen activities that included two class-length observations with my principal and another trained observer. The online portion took me maybe six hours to complete as I learned how to navigate the site and put in all the details.
My principal and I were very open throughout the process; he solicited feedback on his observation notes and corrected a few things on his second visit. This time, he sat in the middle of the room, and not the back, caught student responses, documented the handouts and ad hoc whiteboard notes and generally presented a more complete view of my practice. Practice makes perfect!
The new peer observer training is intended to make it possible for us teachers to go into each others’ classrooms and do what my principal did, but as recorders only, not as judges.
The Value of Video
The meat of peer observer training required us to watch films of teachers teaching, with laptops open, trying to scribe every single word, gesture and artifact possible in real time. Then we cut and pasted parts of our notes into the web-based platform, “tagging” them with references to those 63 teaching-and-learning elements. Our notes will be graded by our trainer, who is seeking to calibrate us to the university experts who designed this system, with the ultimate goal of having us “certified.” We watched three hours’ instruction for three teachers, yielding three days’ worth of work for the observers. Exhausting work. And we’re only doing the observing part, not the document review or evaluative part required of “real” observers and principals.
Takeaway #1: All of us were drained by the mental effort involved in capturing classroom interactions in the moment. It helped tremendously to go back to the videotape. The implications of Judge Chalfant’s Doe v. Deasy decision is that videotaping your observed lesson is highly preferable to relying on someone to take accurate notes while you teach. Especially if you want or expect a full lesson’s observation and not a drive-by.
Perception = Reality
This is the second time in 15 years that I’ve had an administrator who had been an inner-city high-school English teacher, like me, and knows what that means. Other administrators and observers came from elementary or middle schools, or were long-removed from any kind of classroom. Their notes and feedback were less useful and often, not nearly as detailed or accurate as my current principal’s. Their evaluations, for better or worse, became my reality.
Takeaway #2: We MUST be involved as co-observers in the evaluation process. Teachers have a real perspective on the quirks of the classroom – many of us would welcome another educator into our rooms who could act as a mirror and help us focus on facilitating great discussions, asking higher-level questions, or drawing Francisco out of his inner world. Without having teachers involved in this process we risk lowering the quality of the observation and the help that comes with it.
Takeaway #3: Observing helps us all make positive changes. Most of us observation trainees had been a part of the evaluation pilot, and we were very enlightened to sit on the other side of the table. One of the classroom films was very, very impressive, but when I got into the nitty-gritty of comparing the lesson to the framework, I realized the instruction was a little short on assessment and, perhaps, differentiation. In terms of collecting objective evidence, it simply wasn’t in this particular lesson. And that’s all I was supposed to do – look for quantity and variety, not quality. I was not supposed to infer, just use what was given. Sure makes me look at my own lesson plans in more detail, and with a sharpened sense of purpose. And I can’t help but judge myself, you know.
Take Control or Surrender It
John Deasy has said there is “no question” in his mind that LAUSD will roll out this evaluation system in the near future. The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is asking every teacher in its network to do the “Teacher Self-Assessment” next year. As reluctant as I am to endorse this time-consuming system, being an active participant helps me feel that I can better help and advocate for my fellow teachers, knowing what I know now. And maybe! Just like the LA Kings, the underdogs I work with can show their mettle too in the year ahead.