Proof Your Teacher Evaluation is Meaningless

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It’s bad enough that part of teachers’ evaluations are based on student growth. This growth, usually based on just a few poorly designed assessments and for which students are not personally held accountable, can be affected by a number of factors completely outside the control of the teacher, such as student attendance, motivation, technical issues, and whether or not a kid remembered his glasses or whether or not mom remembered his medication on the critical day.

But even more egregious is that a large percentage of a teacher’s evaluation comes from administrator observations.

A principal is given a huge checklist of “best practices,” and is supposed to assess the teacher in real-time on each of them. They might do this a couple of times each year. Of the more than 1,000 hours that teachers do their jobs in a year, their evaluation may rest on just 80 minutes of observed teaching. In other words, a teacher’s entire year is judged on about one-tenth of one percent of her efforts.

That’s not the worst of it. Because in the case of observations, it’s not what districts are doing that proves teacher evaluations are meaningless. It’s what districts are not doing.

What Districts Won’t and Never Will Do

See if you can imagine your district doing the following:

On a day in May, say a week or two before you are to receive your end-of-year evaluation, the entire staff is invited to a one-hour professional development session. The topic is “Why Your Teacher Evaluation is Credible.” You all gather inside the high school auditorium. A huge screen is hung over the stage. In the front row sits every administrator the district employs.

The Superintendent walks to the microphone and says, “Valued educators, we know that many teachers feel stress over their evaluations. Today, we are going to alleviate some of that stress. We want you to know that the tool we use to evaluate you produces consistent results, no matter who uses it.

To prove it to you, we are all going to watch a 40-minute video of a lesson. In this case, you’ll be seeing a sixth grade social studies class. Each administrator will complete an observation–just like they do for all of you–while they watch the video. When the lesson ends, I will collect each principal’s observation and I will show them to you. That way, you will see that no matter who uses the tool it produces very similar results. You’ll know that your teacher evaluation is a true reflection of your abilities as an educator, and not the subjective result of an unproven process that encourages you to employ different strategies based solely on the whims and preferences of the person who happens to be your supervisor this year.”

At which point the video starts and the principals start tapping things on their iPads.

The fact that none of the above happens in any district I know of (and never will) tells teachers everything they need to know about the objectivity of the observations they’re forced to endure and are asked to believe in.

If you have a system that relies on the opinions and values of the individuals doing the scoring then you have a system that can’t be trusted.

Treat Teachers Like Gymnasts

Gymnastics recognizes this. Gymnastics, like teaching, is more art than science. Two people watching the same routine can honestly disagree about which was better. That’s why gymnasts are scored by multiple judges who have deep knowledge of the sport and receive rigorous training on how to evaluate routines. They’re given strict guidelines and add points for required elements and difficulty, while deducting for execution and artistry.*

And still they don’t agree. That’s why the high and low scores are thrown out and the rest are averaged. FIG recognizes that relying on the judgment of one person ruins the credibility of their sport. No viewer would trust the results of a gymnastics competition that was judged by a single person. The gymnasts wouldn’t trust those results, either.

Neither should teachers. It says something that we care more about getting it right for gymnasts than for teachers. It says something that school districts will never allow its teachers to see how subjective their administrators’ observations truly are. It says something that American teachers’ jobs are in the hands of one judge, who bases his or her evaluation on one-tenth of one percent of a teachers’ working hours.

One judge.

Better hope it’s not the Russian.**

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* I simplified Olympic gymnastics’ scoring for ease of reading.

** I’ve got nothing against Russians, except that they cheat in the Olympics.

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I wrote more about teacher evaluations here:

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

 

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6 Ways to Prepare for Next Year Before Students Leave

Because summer vacation should actually feel like a vacation, add these six items to your end-of-the-year to-do list and check them off before students leave. Getting them done will make your summer more enjoyable, and they’ll make the transition to a new year in the fall less stressful.

Get Rid of Stuff

Things accumulate. My stuff tends to pile up in three places: my teacher cabinet, my closet, and my filing cabinets. The hustle and bustle of our busy days means things don’t always get put where they belong. After a materials-intensive project, we might shove things into the closet just to get them out of sight. Worthless worksheets get dropped back into a file folder instead of in the trash where they belong. Dried out highlighters take up residence in our cabinets.

There are three reasons to get rid of stuff while students are still around. First, it cuts down on waste. Students will take just about anything home. A teacher’s detritus in the hands of a student can become a creative craft project. Let them have the empty stapler boxes and orphaned marker caps. Second, students are a source of free labor. Give them the tub of markers and have them test and throw out the duds. You’ll save time and they’ll enjoy doing it. Third, they’re done listening to you anyway. This will give them something productive to do.

Organize Your Files

I have Google Classroom and most of the documents I create throughout the year end up in a big mess. I make sure to find time during the last two weeks to open unnamed files and see if they’re worth keeping (and naming). I put every worthy file into a relevantly-named folder. This helps me find things much quicker next year when the search function fails because I named the file something stupid.

Go through the filing cabinets, too. My rule is simple. If I haven’t used it in two years, it goes in the trash. I’ve gotten rid of entire cabinets with this rule. Again, have students assist. I have file folders with multiple copies of worksheets. The extras are taking up space. Have students pull the extra papers and put them in a box. That becomes scratch paper for next year, while your files stay nice and slim and easy to flip through.

Organize the Classroom Library

I used to come in a week before school started to organize my classroom library. Now I have my students do it before they leave. Assign five or six responsible students to return books to their proper baskets. Have them put books they’re not sure about on a back table. Those will be the only ones you have to organize. If labels have torn, students can make new ones. In fact, your classroom library might be ready for a total makeover. Pass out blank index cards, a tub of markers, some glitter glue, stickers, and whatever else you have around and let students design and affix the new labels.

Make Copies for Next Year

When’s the worst time to use the copy machine? When everyone else is using it. Most teachers don’t get organized for the start of next year until just before the start of next year. By getting a jump on the competition, you’ll save yourself the frustration of waiting for Joyce to figure out how to run a collated set of “Getting to Know You” worksheets. Since copy machines are often in less demand at the end of the year due to less student work and more teachers getting the hell of there because it’s gorgeous outside, it’s the perfect time to make copies for the beginning of next year.

I try to get two sets of copies done before I leave for the summer. I always want my open house packet finished. My district is notorious for running computer updates and having technical problems the week before school starts and that usually messes with the printing and copying capabilities. Having my open house handouts done and in a filing cabinet eases my peace of mind. I also copy anything I’ll need during the first week of school. That way, while other teachers are swearing at a paper jam and wasting their planning time waiting for their colleagues, I can focus on other things (and during the first week, there are a lot of other things).

Survey your students

Before students leave, you should survey them and get their honest opinions about your class. Information from surveys almost always makes me question my practice. For example, I learned that this year’s students really liked being able to work with partners. I also learned they liked reading or listening to e-books much more than traditional books. Their favorite activities were ones where they got to create something, even something as simple as a slideshow for their vocabulary words. As a result, I’m thinking of ways to incorporate more partner work next year and brainstorming procedures to teach to make that work productive. I’m also curious to see what research says about the effectiveness of listening to e-books. I’ll also want to find more ways for students to make things.

Do a Procedures Audit

Procedures will make or break you. They’re what separates a well-run classroom from a zoo. List every procedure that happens in your class, whether you wanted it to or not. This can be hard to do because it makes you take an honest look about what really goes on in your classroom. If students leave their seats when they finish their work, write that down. If some students continually come up to you or blurt your name across the room when they need your help, record that. Those are procedures, whether you wanted them to be or not.

 

Once you have your list, assess each procedure. I type mine up and then color code them. Procedures that worked the way I wanted them to are turned blue. I’ll be teaching them just like I did this year. Procedures that are in place but could be better I turn yellow. That’s usually an indication that the procedure wasn’t modeled, practiced, or enforced well enough. Procedures that drive me nuts become red. These are usually the result of not teaching the procedure in the first place. For next year, I’ll find time during the first two weeks to model how I want it done.

The benefit of doing this audit while you still have this year’s students is you can ask them why a procedure didn’t work. I teach in a portable, so we don’t have lockers. We have hooks on one wall. My procedure for this year was that students who entered the classroom first had to put their backpacks on the back hooks, while later students would use the front hooks. But students wouldn’t do it no matter how many times I modeled and stressed its importance. Every day I ended up with backpacks on the front hooks and on the floor. Nobody used the back hooks. It wasn’t until I asked that I found out why. No one wanted the back hooks because they couldn’t access their backpacks during the day. If they needed gloves at recess, the front hook backpacks were in the way. If they forgot their library book and had to get it, they had to duck under other backpacks, wiggle their way behind them, and then try to get their backpack open. To them, it made more sense to leave their backpacks on the floor where they had easy access to them.

Doing the procedures audit at the end of the year also means you’ll be more likely to remember what happened in your room and assess the procedures honestly. Once summer starts we tend to forget how annoying it was that Jill walked across the room to personally tell us every time she needed a Kleenex.

Get it done now. Enlist students’ help. Then enjoy your summer and hit the ground running when you return in the fall.

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Thanks for reading. Please take the time to leave any end-of-the-year tips in the comments or on Facebook. If you’d like more articles sent to your inbox, you can subscribe here. It’s free!

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Other articles you may enjoy:

The Benefits of Doing Nothing

The Most Offensive F-Word in Education

5 End Of The Year Classroom Management Tips

 

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

At the end of every school day, I tell myself one thing: smile.

No matter what has just happened. No matter how the day has gone. No matter if I want to scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I tell myself to smile. A smile is the simplest way to impress parents.

I wish I could claim credit for this, but I stole it from another teacher. When my daughter was in first grade there were a few occasions when I was able to pick her up from school. The parents of the children who didn’t ride the bus all stood around awkwardly at the front of the building waiting for their precious ones to emerge.

The teachers walked the classes out, one after another, kind of like “The Locomotion,” but without the annoying song.  I looked forward to seeing my daughter, but I also looked forward to seeing Mrs. Herrera. Mrs. Herrera taught one of the other first grade classes, and every day when she stepped from the shadow of the school and into the daylight she had a bright smile on her face. She engaged happily with her students and smiled as she handed them over to their parents.

I probably picked my daughter up twenty times over the three years she attended that school. Mrs. Herrera smiled like that every single time.

I’ve never taught first grade, but I imagine it’s like teaching third grade, only with more exhaustion. I am sure there were many days when Mrs. Herrera did not feel like smiling. But smile she did.

What Parents Will Think

As a parent, I was impressed that after whatever she went through during the course of the day, she chose to end it positively. Her smile sent a number of messages:

  • I like my job.
  • I like kids.
  • I can handle whatever you throw at me.
  • I’m relaxed.
  • I don’t easily blow my top.
  • You can trust me to be patient and kind with your child.

It turns out there is science to back up my positive thoughts. First, smiling makes us feel better. Research has shown that you can boost your mood by smiling, even if you don’t feel happy at all. Second, smiling is contagious. Participants in one Swedish study were shown pictures of several emotions. When the picture of someone smiling was presented, researchers told the participants to frown. Instead, most of them imitated the smiles they saw on the pictures. It took conscious effort to not smile. So when Mrs. Herrera smiled, most parents couldn’t help but smile back. All this smiling helps forge connections between people, even if they’ve never spoken. We like people who make us feel better, and smiling makes us feel better.

Seeing Mrs. Herrera’s smile made me like her more.

There are at least 50 parents on the blacktop at the end of my school day. I want every one of them to see me smile. I want them to wonder how I can go though an entire day of doing a job a number of them have told me they wouldn’t have the patience for and still end it in a good mood. I want them to think the same positive things I thought when I saw Mrs. Herrera. I want them to smile back. I want them to be impressed.

All it takes is a second to remind myself to do a very simple thing. But like many simple things, it can make a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Happy Teacher

I’m nearly finished with the first draft of my second book, Happy Teacher.  I should have some cover options to show off in the next couple of days. If you’d like to provide feedback on them, check back here probably early next week.

The book is about applying the growing body of research on happiness to the classroom so that teachers experience more joy at work. The books below were the best I read on the topic and provided much of the source material. They were all fantastic reads and you’ll quickly see how much of the science can be applied to teaching.

Happy Teacher should be available in Kindle and print form in late April.

Clicking on the image will take you to the Amazon link for the book.

A great overview of many surprising findings in happiness research. Gilbert is easy to read and often funny.

 Full of energy, fast-paced, and packed with great information without getting bogged down with too much science.

 The self-proclaimed first book to explain the science behind happiness. The author is cited in nearly every other happiness book I read and in many online articles.

 If you’ve ever wondered why you’re so tired after teaching or why you reach for the worst foods after a long day and you want to know what to do about it, this is the book to read.

 The author cites some of his own interesting work on happiness as well as many other studies. He also includes links to videos of interviews with experts on happiness. His Mental Chatter exercise led to fascinating insights about the surprising things people think about.

 The second book by the well-respected Lyubomirsky. This one looks at the misconceptions people have about what will make them happy.

 Less science and more fun, Rubin puts the research and conventional wisdom about happiness to the test as she spends one year on her happiness project. A funny, easy read.

 No new ground is broken here, but Smith references many interesting studies that led to further research and insights.

 Not marketed as a book about happiness, being an essentialist is essential for teachers. I especially pulled a lot from the chapter on saying no. If you’re stretched too thin and feel like there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it, read this book.

Written by the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman revisits and updates the ideas he first introduced in his seminal work, Authentic Happiness.
 A book every school leader needs to read, The Levity Effect is a business book about how having more fun at work leads to happier and more productive employees. The most successful businesses in the world are those where the employees are happiest. If your school is drab and you want to liven it up, get this book in people’s hands.

In Defense of Independent Reading

In the entire history of stupid school tricks, there may be none dumber than the practice of banning independent reading from classrooms. Not only does the research not support such a drastic measure, but administrators who take such action should have their brains scanned to see if common sense has somehow slipped out their ears.

While there is vigorous debate about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, no one claims that practice isn’t vitally important. You can’t become proficient at playing the piano, cooking gourmet meals, shooting a basketball, cross-stitch, writing novels, or carpentry by watching others do it, listening to them talk about how they do it, and completing worksheets about it. You actually have to do those things. Why would the skill of reading be any different?

Reasons for Independent Reading

Two goals of independent reading in the classroom that teachers regularly cite are to promote positive attitudes about reading and to provide students the opportunity to practice reading to achieve proficiency (Allington, 1977, 2009, Gambrell, 2009).

To these reasons I would add a third, more logistical reason: teachers have students read independently because many districts require progress monitoring and intervention time with identified students. While the teacher’s attention is with the at-risk learner(s), the other students must be engaged in an independent activity that is both beneficial and requires no teacher assistance or monitoring so that she may concentrate her efforts on the at-risk learner(s). Many teachers feel that independent reading is a more effective use of students’ time than other independent activities. In this belief they are supported by reading researcher Richard Allington, who says that time spent reading contributes to reading achievement in ways that simply doing worksheets or other activities does not (Allington, 2002; Foorman et al., 2006).

Does Independent Reading Increase Achievement?

Much of the criticism about independent reading is because of a report by the National Reading Panel. It states:

With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency. In other words, even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence obtained from studies of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills. Given the extensive use of these techniques, it is important that such research be conducted.

Unfortunately, this statement is often misinterpreted. The above is not a finding that independent reading is ineffective, but rather that there have not been enough quality research studies to make any conclusion about its effectiveness.

The Panel clarified (my emphasis):

It should be made clear that these findings do not negate the positive influence that independent silent reading may have on reading fluency, nor do the findings negate the possibility that wide independent reading significantly influences vocabulary development and reading comprehension. Rather, there are simply not sufficient data from well-designed studies capable of testing questions of causation to substantiate causal claims. The available data do suggest that independent silent reading is not an effective practice when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills, particularly with students who have not yet developed critical alphabetic and word reading skills. In sum, methodologically rigorous research designed to assess the specific influences that independent silent reading practices have on reading fluency and other reading skills and the motivation to read has not yet been conducted.

Stepping up to that challenge, Wu and Samuels (2004) investigated the optimal amount of independent reading time per day. In their study, some third and fifth grade classes had students read independently for 40 minutes per day. In the comparison classes, students had a combination of 15 minutes per day of independent reading and 25 minutes of the teacher reading aloud to the students. In both sets of classes, this reading activity was in addition to core reading instruction. In general, poor readers had superior literacy outcomes in the 15 minutes per day of independent reading condition, and skilled readers performed better in the 40 minutes per day condition. This held true across all reading skills measured, “including reading rate and accuracy, comprehension, and word recognition.

A meta-analysis of 49 studies found a positive relationship between the volume of student reading and reading achievement (Allington, 2009, citing Lewis & Samuels, n.d.). Lewis and Samuels also reported on a more focused meta-analysis of studies that provided causal evidence that students who have in-school independent reading time, in addition to regular reading instruction, do significantly better on measures of reading achievement than peers who have not had reading time (an effect size of d = 0.42). (Allington, 2009, p. 32, citing Lewis & Samuels, n.d.) Allington notes that this effect size for in-school independent reading time was similar to the effect size for systematic phonics (d = 0.44) found by the National Reading Panel.

Based on another meta-analysis of 29 studies on sustained silent reading (SSR), Manning et al. (2010) came to the conclusion that “SSR is a valuable intervention that makes a worthwhile difference in developing students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension” (Gambrell et al., 2011, p. 148, citing Manning et al., 2010).

Achievement Isn’t Everything

While it’s important that students increase their reading skills, it may be more important that they develop a love of reading. Our job as a teacher is not simply to prepare students to pass state reading tests, but to inspire students to become lifelong readers so they can thrive as adults. Research shows that lifelong readers are more intelligent, more culturally aware, show more empathy, are better communicators, and are less stressed.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have studied the amount of time students choose to read. In a series of studies involving hundreds of students, Morrow and Weinstein (1986) found that very few preschool and primary grade children chose to look at books during free-choice time at school. Greaney (1980) found that fifth-grade students spent only 5.4 percent of their out-of-school free time engaged in reading, and 23 percent of them chose not to read at all. Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson (1988) found that students spend less than 2 percent of their free time reading. Furthermore, as students get older, the amount of reading they do decreases. Clearly, schools are failing to create lifelong readers. We must do better.

The science is clear on how to increase students’ motivation to read. Gambrell states that “Motivation to read and reading achievement are higher when the classroom environment is rich in reading materials and includes books from an array of genres and text types, magazines, the Internet, resource materials, and real-life documents.”

Research also suggests that students’ motivation to read strengthens when they have opportunities to socially interact with others about reading. Gambrell et al. (2011) cite evidence that social interaction among students “promotes achievement, higher-level cognition, and intrinsic desire to read” (pp. 153-154, citing Almasi, 1995; Ames, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Guthrie et al., 1995; Manning & Manning, 1984; see also McRae & Guthrie, 2009).

Other factors that increase student motivation include choice in reading material, relevance of the reading material, and sustained periods to engage in reading.

If districts are still unconvinced of the importance of in-class independent reading, they should know that the practice is specifically endorsed in the Publisher’s Criteria for the Common Core State Standards. These criteria “concentrate on the most significant elements of the Common Core State Standards and lay out their implications for aligning materials with the standards.” Two of the standard’s lead authors, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, write in section I.1.E:

Additional materials aim to increase regular independent reading of texts that appeal to students’ interests while developing both their knowledge base and joy in reading. These materials should ensure that all students have daily opportunities to read texts of their choice on their own during and outside of the school day. Students need access to a wide range of materials on a variety of topics and genres both in their classrooms and in their school libraries to ensure that they have opportunities to independently read broadly and widely to build their knowledge, experience, and joy in reading. Materials will need to include texts at students’ own reading level as well as texts with complexity levels that will challenge and motivate students. Texts should also vary in length and density, requiring students to slow down or read more quickly depending on their purpose for reading. In alignment with the standards and to acknowledge the range of students’ interests, these materials should include informational texts and literary nonfiction as well as literature. A variety of formats can also engage a wider range of students, such as high-quality newspaper and magazine articles as well as information-rich websites.

The question, then, that districts should ask is not whether classroom teachers should set aside time for students to engage in reading self-selected reading material, but in how the practice can be implemented most effectively.

Experts on independent reading agree that effective independent reading experience requires that texts be matched to students’ reading abilities so they can experience success (Allington, 2009; Gambrell, 2011; Gaskins, 2008; Hiebert & Martin, 2009).

Teachers should also provide a balance of “explicit teacher-directed instruction . . . [,] teacher-directed reading practice, teacher-assigned self-directed reading practice, and . . . [free voluntary reading]” (Allington, 2009, p. 48).

Classroom libraries should be large, varied, and contain books of many different reading levels and complexities. To achieve this, Allington recommends eliminating spending on workbooks and test prep materials, as there is no research to support their use.

More skilled readers need to be provided with large amounts of time, while those with weaker skills need less time and more instruction (Wu and Samuels, 2004).

Students should be provided with opportunities to interact socially around their reading (Almasi, 1995; Ames, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Guthrie et al., 1995; Manning & Manning, 1984; see also McRae & Guthrie, 2009).

And teachers should instruct students on text selection, scaffold student understanding of different types of text, and confer with students about their reading (Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008)

It is my hope that school districts recognize the importance of providing students with independent reading time in the classroom and support its teachers in doing so by providing relevant research and professional development on how best to implement the practice. Schools should follow both the research and common sense to do what’s best for students to develop both their reading skills and a lifelong love of the written word.

 

For more information, check out the following excellent books:

What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction

No More Independent Reading Without Support

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers