Using Teacher Evaluation as a Lever for Personalized Mastery
We, along with other advocates of personalized mastery, have been faced with the chore of attempting to reform our current educational model away from a traditional teacher-centered system to a learner-centered system in which students partner with teachers and have direct ownership of their own learning goals. Many observers would argue that like-minded proponents of personalized mastery are engaged in a difficult battle. They would say the current system is very resistant to change and that the adults who would have to become the “change agents” are not interested in the hard work. It would be necessary for teachers to share the important task of schooling our children with those very same children. Some don’t believe in the children being able to guide their own learning, “what do the kids know?”
In this kind of climate, where the system is very resistant to change, reformers must attempt to find a variety of leverage points to get our educational system to become a system that embraces continuous improvement. These leverage points include, writing about the research that supports the personalized mastery (PM) concept, criss-crossing the nation doing staff development for districts that have an interest in a PM model and convincing teachers, one at a time, that this way of learning must be adopted to prepare our children for the 21st century. Another possible leverage point to moving our schools is to encourage teachers to change by harnessing teacher evaluation systems that will reward the effort necessary to change teacher- centered practice to more learner-centered practice.
We are happy to say that such an effort is indeed under way all across the nation. Over the last four years the co-founders of Don’t Ever Stop! have been following the efforts of districts that are committed to improving learning for their students. The districts’ evaluation tools have four similar domains: Planning, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. The associated rubric also has four performance levels that range from “Requires Action/Unsatisfactory”, “Progressing”, Accomplished” and “Exemplary” practice. The focus of our interest in this work was the effort to calibrate district administrators in observing with consistency classroom practice in Domain 2, Classroom Environment and Domain 3, Instruction. One of the major points of emphasis of this work was to focus the observers’ eye on student learning instead of teacher behavior.
We have watched teachers and administrators adjust their focus from a checklist of teacher behavioral traits to gathering data from the learners regarding what they are learning. Most teachers are meeting the criteria for an “Accomplished” score in the Classroom Environment. What this means is, teachers are still setting an effective classroom culture, but without partnering with their students.
Classroom Instructional practice is mostly scoring in the “Progressing” category. This means students are experiencing limited learning in teacher-directed classrooms. It’s not until “Exemplary” practice is demonstrated that students will be learning in a student-centered classroom. If students learn in a personalized mastery classroom that exemplify the criteria of “Exemplary” practice as much as possible then schooling happens with the learners instead of to them.
Although “Exemplary” practice is defined in the rubric and outlines learner-centered practices, what we have observed from this work is:
In Domain 2-Classroom Environment
- While the classroom environment is “Accomplished”, for the majority of classrooms, students are not actively involved in setting, monitoring, and celebrating the classroom culture.
In Domain 3- Instruction
- Students are rarely aware of the learning objectives of lessons. When students were asked, “what you are doing?” students are able to describe the topic of the day or the activity. When students are asked, “what you are learning?” they struggle to explain the actual learning.
- The use of formative and pre-assessment practice to inform instruction is moving slowly. Students are rarely aware of assessment criteria and data, and do not engage in self- or peer-evaluation. Because formative practice is not in place, students are only occasionally given specific feedback and the time to perfect their learning. Lessons usually consist of whole group instruction with the same activity or lesson, not differentiated by any data. However, most teachers do not know which students need this lesson and which students already know this material. Students are summatively assessed and Response to Invention (RtI) time is allocated to remediate skills. Students are not grouped based on the learning data gathered during lessons.
- Some students are engaged in relevant, interesting, real-world learning, most are not. Students therefore are ritualistically engaged in lessons. Luckily for districts their students are compliant to the plans of the adults. Students were often busy however they were not intellectually engaged and therefore real learning is rarely observed.
- Currently, questioning and discussion is another component that only occasionally engages students. Teachers are using upper level questions however the discussion that follows usually consists of a conversation back and forth with the teacher. Rarely do students discuss topics with one another, with the teacher stepping aside. Growth has been seen with teachers encouraging accountable talk from students.
In order for districts to continue to progress in creating a system that partners with learners and teachers in increasing student learning, we would offer the following recommendations for consideration:
- Students need to be allowed voice and choice in their culture and learning. If teachers assisted students in the creation of a vision and a code of collaboration, the students will feel more like learning is a shared experience. Then students and teachers should identify the protocols needed for the classroom to run efficiently and effectively. Students can choose the manner and content of celebration once classroom culture goals are achieved.
- There is definitely the will and the way to engage learners in student-centered practice. The district rubric that defines “Exemplary” practice should become the norm. Teachers need to be encouraged to live in the category of “Exemplary” instead of only visiting it on occasion. If students and teachers live in “Exemplary”, then students and teachers are partners.
- To the credit of the administrators, they are beginning to see the difference between compliance and intellectual engagement.
- Students need to continue to be taught how to use “accountable talk” and students need to ensure the involvement of all students in the discussion.
- Formative assessment practice should be more fully embraced to inform instruction, provide quality feedback for students to improve and deepen their learning, inform content for interventionists, and students to track their own learning. Adherence to a rigid pacing guide encourages whole group instruction whether it’s needed or not and does not allow teachers to remediate or accelerate instruction based on learner’s needs. If students know they are ready for assessments based on learning the material, “hope” is maintained for student learning and assessment.
DES’s hope is that the effort of districts around the nation, to use the teacher evaluation tool as one leverage point to lead teachers and students into a partnership of learning will bear fruit. Teachers must see that sharing the joy and work of learning with the students deepens student learning while at the same time helps students master the skills necessary to be successful in their future. School must become a place where learning happens with the students and not a place where school happens to the students.