On teacher evaluation & the New York APPR reforms: a view from Down Under

There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder. ~ Ronald Reagan

NYC skyline, by @debsnet

As part of the Education Transformation Act of 2015, New York State is reforming its Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and Teacher Effectiveness rating system.

Grant Wiggins in his open letter to Governor Cuomo calls the APPR reforms a “step backward” which disempowers teachers.

NY Middle School Principal Lisa Meade voiced her concerns here and put out the call out to New York educators to respond to the proposed teacher evaluation reforms. Educator Christina Luce added to the conversation in her post, asserting that, while she supports an annual professional reflection and review, the proposed reforms are narrow, punitive and make “an already horrendous evaluation system even worse”.

While I am not a New York educator, I felt compelled to offer a perspective from a different system. My visits with schools and educators last October helped me to learn about how teacher evaluation is approached in New York. While some of the challenges faced were global, shared with Australian schools, some were surprising to me. I wrote various posts documenting my reflections in New York including:

  • My visit to a school in Westchester which opened my eyes to the constraints on New York schools in teacher evaluation;
  • My visit to a school on the Upper East side which reminded me about the need for schools to find teacher evaluation and growth processes appropriate to their context;
  • Meeting Ellie Drago-Serverson at Columbia University to discuss the best environments and practices to facilitate adult learning;
  • Meeting with Charlotte Danielson and Cindy Tocci around effective applications of the Framework for Teaching for teacher growth and evaluation; and
  • Meeting with New York City professional development provider Teaching Matters, an organisation which bases its work in a belief about the capacity of teachers to be leaders and for schools to be vibrant places of distributed leadership.

slice of harlem, by @debsnet

The proposed APPR reforms seem to make an already limited system of scoring even narrower, based on data that I imagine does little to reflect a holistic picture of a teacher, their teaching, and their students’ learning. While the use of these kinds of data for measuring teacher effectiveness have been questioned (see for instance this post and this post by Grant Wiggins), I have instead focused on how these reforms sit with my own beliefs about teacher learning.

Costa and Garmston in this paper talk about safety, but not comfort, being a prerequisite for learning, pointing out that the brain works in such a way that if we do not feel safe, we cannot think and learn. They note that sensory signals entering the brain travel first to the thalamus, then to the amygdala or threat detector, and then to the neocortex where thinking happens. “If threat, fear, pain even in the most minute portions are perceived, neurological and chemical processes occur which prepare the system for survival, not reflection.” While learning often happens in a space of what they call ‘disequilibrium’, or what I call the discomfort zone, there needs to be safety and trust for thinking, reflection and growth to occur. The New York teacher effectiveness system does not seem to allow for a safe environment of learning and growth, but rather opens up the potential for fear and a fight-or-flight response.

This notion of safety-but-disequilibrium is supported by Ellie Drago-Severson’s concept of high-support high-challenge ‘holding environments’ as the optimal environments for adult learning. By Dan Pink’s work on motivation which he notes is extinguished by punitive approaches. By David Rock’s work which shows that carrot-and-stick approaches result in resistance. In reflections by Robert Evans that teachers resist externally imposed change. By the Adaptive Schools foundational concepts of trust and of honouring both the individual and the system.

Upper East Side, NYC, by @debsnet

In light of how the brain works and how thinking and motivation are ignited, the New York teacher evaluation system, current and proposed, doesn’t make sense to me. It is a punitive deficit model which assumes that teachers are underperforming, unprofessional and in need of external measures to bring them up to scratch. In a recent paper, Dylan Wiliam points out that “each teacher has a better idea of what will improve the learning of their students, in their classroom, in the context of what they are teaching them, than anyone else.” Teachers should be trusted to be professionals and given the support, and challenge, to grown on their professional journeys.

My school’s teacher growth model is based on a belief in the capacity of teachers. It is based in a belief that everyone is coachable. That is, that teachers want the best for their students and that they are fully capable, with support, of setting goals, analysing data and improving their practice in ways which most benefit their students.

Wiggins is right when he says these reforms disempower teachers. Surely if we want teachers to get better, it isn’t scoring them we should be primarily concerned with, but growing them. Teachers should receive ongoing support to refine their practice and focus on becoming increasingly better at serving their students’ pastoral and learning needs. I absolutely agree with regular performance check-ins and goal setting work, but I also believe in teachers.

My hope for any school system would be that teachers are given opportunities for growth born out of a belief in their capacities and in their important work with our children, rather than public scorecards based on questionable measures.

New York, I’m thinking of you, your teachers, your school leaders and your students.

NYC, by @debsnet

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Lessons on Teacher Evaluation from Westchester County

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

lockers

Today I met with an administrator at a school in Westchester County, New York, who spoke to me about his experiences with teacher growth and effectiveness models being developed and implemented in and around New York State.

It was interesting to hear first-hand about the constraints and pressures on the New York public education system. It seems that laws, funding and standardised testing have had a profound impact on the way teacher effectiveness is being measured and pursued in the State of New York. My understanding is that a law mandating that schools only receive an annual 2% increase in funding has resulted in sometimes severe cuts to leadership roles in schools, curriculum programs, pastoral infrastructure and resources. By the sounds of things, some schools still have middle leadership positions like Heads of Faculty / Curriculum Supervisors, but many have had to lose these roles, putting all the pressure and responsibility on principals and assistant principals.

Additionally, conditions of the No Child Left Behind funding include State-approved teacher evaluation measures. So while Charlotte Danielson published the Framework for Teaching in 1996 with a view to promoting conversations with teachers about practice, it is now used for scoring and assessing teacher performance on a lesson by lesson basis.

Approaches to classroom observations vary. In some places whole lessons are observed and a score given for each and every component in Domains 2 and 3 of the Danielson Framework. Another approach is to take observation data and see which components emerge as the most dominant in a given lesson. Another is to focus data collection and conversation around components which teachers have identified as areas of focus in a pre-lesson conversation.

Each year, teachers receive an effectiveness score, based on a very “paperwork driven” system which includes:

  • Observations from their administrator (60%)
  • School-based pre- and post- year testing (20%); and
  • Student scores in standardized national tests (20%).

Each teacher’s score is available to parents (“Your child will have Mrs AAA who received a score of BBB and was rated Highly Effective/Effective/Developing/Basic”?). The school also receives a publically published ‘report card’ based on its students’ test results and its teachers’ effectiveness scores. So teachers and schools are quantitatively scored on their apparent effectiveness. Interestingly, the administrator I spoke to said that his personal experience of the scoring of teachers by these measures presented a highly inaccurate picture of their effectiveness.

It seems that this quantifying and scoring of teachers and schools leads to a skewing of the teacher effectiveness model. Administrators might, for instance, give their teachers false ‘highly effective’ ratings. Teachers might teach to the test. The administrator told me that teachers began seeing themselves in terms of numbers (“I’m a ‘3’”) but that “you can’t quantify highly effective teaching.”

While in Australia schools are often measured by league tables based on standardised testing, we certainly do not have the same pressures as those in the United States.

This administrator’s reflections on what could and should work in a teacher evaluation and growth system were:

  • The focus should be on teachers talking about their practice, not on numbers;
  • The Danielson Framework should be a tool for growth, conscious competence and developing a common professional language among teachers;
  • Schools should ask what it means to be a ‘Danielson School’: a community of learners who think and talk about teaching practice, and in which professional development is aligned with the Framework;
  • Money and time are both significant challenges to meaningfully and effectively developing a meaningful model which encourages teacher growth, especially in a United States context; and
  • Teacher-administrator/coach/observer conversations should be based on invitational questions which encourage cognition, but there are situations in which teachers may need more direction or support in terms of talking about evidence or reflecting against the Framework; there is an expectation that the teacher is engaged in the process and prepared for pre- and post- conversations.

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