Surprising as it may seem, the teachers union and I may agree on more about teacher performance and evaluations than has been apparent from recent columns.

For starters, I am a big fan of National Board Certification for teachers and devoted a December 2008 column to this important credential — the credential referenced by Chris Galgay, Maine Education Association president, in his recent Another View commentary. Mr. Galgay also stated that the MEA supported “best practices in teaching and induction systems into the profession that improve teaching performance.”

This is exactly what the two articles I referenced in my March 16 column on teaching breakthroughs are all about.

Mr. Galgay may simply need to know more about recent work that has been done on best practices in teacher evaluation. As it happens, the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit, came out just this month with a report titled, “Supporting Effective Teaching Through Teacher Evaluations.”

This was a study of the teacher evaluation process in five high-performing charter schools. The study recounts how these schools, part of charter networks serving mostly low income and minority students, have developed a “culture of accountability” in which teachers, administrators and school staff all hold themselves accountable for student results.

The authors picked a set of high-performing charter schools to study because they observe that charter schools have advantages when it comes to building meaningful teacher evaluation approaches. First, the conditions of their charter stipulate that they must accomplish an agreed set of student outcomes over what is typically a five-year period or lose their charter. Thus, these schools have an immediacy about them in terms of getting results. Second, charters have considerable flexibility in setting up evaluation systems as they are not constrained by contractual or procedural limitations that often make public school evaluation processes weak and ineffective.

As a result, the report found that these schools have developed highly effective teacher evaluation approaches that focus on improving teaching practice. Student performance, as measured by assessments and by other testing, plays a significant role in these evaluations, but it is one element in a more highly developed process that involves multiple teacher observations and mentoring.

The processes in these schools focus on constructive dialogue and feedback. In the words of one teacher, “feedback is a gift.” Considerable attention is devoted to how to give and receive feedback. Moreover, this kind of feedback is two-way, both to teachers about their practice and to administrators about their approach to observations. This plays a key role in increasing everyone’s “receptivity to critique.”

Although their study was a relatively small sample, the authors suggest some important lessons from it: “that it is clear that these charters focus sharply on instructional improvement and encourage on going feedback on teaching and learning.” Moreover, “the systems and results-oriented culture seem to promote deep and lasting improvement in teachers’ instruction.”

And here’s something interesting, in all these schools, teachers are enthusiastic about the evaluation process because it is focused on helping them improve their teaching practice. As the report notes, even veteran teachers who had taught in public schools applaud the process. As one said, “I never looked closely enough to see if my students were actually mastering skills.”

What is not to like and applaud about the teacher evaluation processes assessed in this study? Indeed, they fit the criteria that Mr. Galgay suggests the union supports: “best practices that improve teacher performance.”

The element that seems sensitive to the union is the addition of “student results” to the assessment approach. If one thinks about it, aren’t student results the key outcome of good teaching? Why shouldn’t they be reviewed as part of the process?

That is why Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated that student results must be a factor in teacher and principal assessment if a state wants to qualify for $4.5 billion in federal funds available through “Race to the Top” funding.

That is why Randi Weingarten, the national president of the “other” teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, supports student results being a part of teacher evaluation.

The notion of student results being a part of teacher evaluations is an idea whose time has come. We now have tracking and assessment systems that make this reliable and constructive.

I would hope that, after learning this information, Mr. Galgay may see, as I do, that the gap separating us is not cavernous and may be bridgeable with a few good Maine timbers.

 

Ron Bancroft an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]