Marshall Rhee came in on her white steed to clean up a D.C. school system overrun by outlaw teachers. Under Rhee’s rein, D.C. schools lost over half their veteran teachers. Many were replaced by young teachers from Teach for America who shared her simplistic view that good teaching trumps poverty and home life. Teach for America places recent college grads with little training into high poverty schools. One consequence is a higher attrition rate than for fully credentialed teachers. Problem #1: Firing large numbers of “bad” teachers cannot improve overall teacher quality because there just aren’t enough replacements who are qualified and experienced.
In order to rid the system of these terrible teachers, Rhee implemented a novel evaluation system, IMPACT, which she claimed could definitively distinguish good teachers from bad ones. Under this system, administrators observed teachers 5 times per year, in unannounced 30 minute visits. During this time, teachers were to demonstrate 22 elements of good teaching, such as tailoring their teaching to at least 3 different learning styles and instilling student self-confidence and self-efficacy. The number was later reduced to 10 elements of good teaching, but even this is a lot to demonstrate in such a short period of time. It is also very subjective and open to abuse. As a result, some teachers figured out how to game the system. Problem #2: the main problem is not the criteria or method by which teachers are evaluated, but that evaluators seldom have the time and often lack the expertise to do it well.
Administrators across the nation have bought into the notion that a whole new set of criteria must be adopted for evaluating teachers. Many are implementing “Walk-Through” models, where they show up unannounced for brief observations and sometimes use novel criteria that have not been adequately evaluated, let alone explained or negotiated with teachers. Much of the impetus for this movement comes from The 3-Minute Walkthrough, by Carolyn Downey, a former administrator and a professor emeritus at San Diego State. Her “50 Ways to Close the Achievement Gap,” focuses entirely on what teachers must change about their instruction and includes nothing on addressing the socioeconomic factors that have the greatest influence on student achievement. The Walk-Through model was based on a Hewlett-Packard supervisory model, and is yet another attempt to impose business solutions on public education. The Walk-Through model is, at its core, about improving worker productivity and getting more bang for the taxpayer’s buck.
Like many school reforms, the Walk-Through observation does have some merits. When done in a non-evaluative context by peers it could help teachers get new ideas and inspiration. Peer observations could also yield insight into habits and methods that are unproductive. Educators might also gain insight into the type of academic culture that prevails at their school, trends in learning or teaching styles, or other useful data that could help with internal reform efforts. When done in small groups, teachers can later debrief their observations and brainstorm together. It can also be productively used by administrators as an evaluation tool, particularly if it motivates them to visit classrooms more often and only if it is used in conjunction with other forms of evaluation in order to gain a more complete picture of a teacher’s skill. Like most forms of evaluation, the Walk-Through model can be abused and manipulated to punish and harass. Some teachers have even filed suit against their administrator for abusing Walk-Through evaluations.
The Walk-Through model also has numerous limitations. As an evaluation tool, one or even several observations cannot give a complete picture of the quality, skill or creativity of a teacher. There are many things that go on outside the classroom that are important, such as collaboration with peers, communication with parents, student interactions and support at lunch or after school. These would be missed during classroom observations, but could be demonstrated through portfolio assessments, where teachers present a body of evidence addressing specific teaching standards. Likewise, piecemeal non-evaluative observations may yield an incomplete picture of the trends at a school. Immediately following a school-wide professional development day, for example, observers might see many more teachers using a new technique than at the beginning or end of the year. Does this reflect a common practice shared by most teachers, or curiosity and experimentation with a newly learned technique that may or may not be used again?
There also may be biases inherent in the process. A good teacher may buck the latest reform efforts pushed by their administrators and get a bad review, yet still get excellent results in terms of student engagement and learning. Lecture, for example, is routinely discounted as an antiquated, teacher-centered method that alienates students, yet a really good lecturer can engage an entire class, have them up and moving around, while incorporating a wide variety of teaching and learning styles. Non-evaluative peer observations can also be biased. When debriefing is done with administrators present, observing teachers may be less inclined to speak freely. Even when observations are ostensibly non-evaluative, administrators could later use the data for evaluations. Therefore, teachers should be cautious not to get sucked into a collaborationist role with their administrators where they are facilitating disciplinary attempts against their colleagues by critiquing their teaching in front of administrators.
Walk-Through evaluations consume time and money. In order to observe peers, teachers must be pulled from the classroom or give up a prep period. Removing teachers from the classroom costs money in sub coverage and reduces student access to their teachers. Further, administrators and teachers need to be trained. Many schools and districts are hiring consultants and purchasing support materials. Publishers are already rushing to grab a seat on this new educational gravy train, providing advice, widgets and multimedia tools to help administrators in their walk through observations.