Sunday, January 29, 2012

Teacher growth through teacher feedback

After seeing how valuable peer evaluation is, I think it should be part of every public school personnel system. Dedicating 2 percent of teachers to do this work is a large investment. It can mean raising the average class size by 2 percent or spending 2 percent more money. With budgets as tight as they are, most states will not add extra money for evaluation so we will have to make the case that it is worth the small increase in class size (of fewer than one student per class on average).
That's Bill Gates' bold proposal for a big change in how teachers invest their time, moving to a plan where a small but important fraction of the total teacher corps works full time on observing and strengthening the others.  The idea is that the feedback would strengthen their colleagues greatly in ways that, in turn, strengthen what students know and can do across the whole curriculum.   It's central to the education section of his 2012 Annual Letter.

The letter also explains key experience from the Hillsborough County (Tampa, Florida) school system, which is trying that model of feedback under a major grant from the Gates Foundation:

A key element of the agreement between the teachers’ union and the superintendent was to assign 2 percent of the teachers to become peer evaluators. These teachers were trained to observe classroom teaching and provide feedback on 22 different components. The principals have also been trained in this approach. Every teacher gets in-depth feedback from both the principal and the peer evaluator. 
Tampa has been doing this for three years now, and it is already making a big difference. Teachers told us they value having feedback from two different sources—the principal who knows the school the best and the peer who knows the challenges of their specific job. The first round of evaluation revealed that many teachers need help engaging the students to prompt critical thinking and problem solving. The district started to organize its professional development around these findings, and the teachers have seized that opportunity to become more effective in the classroom. 
When Melinda and I met with students, they told us that they had seen a big change during their time at the school. The success here required great work by Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia, Classroom Teachers Association President Jean Clements, and all of the teachers. I was particularly impressed with the peer evaluators. They all said they understood great teaching far better, having done the peer evaluation job. Some of the peer evaluators will go back to teaching and others will go into schools of education to help make sure new teachers have better preparation.
Crucially, this idea of peer evaluation is about strengthening teachers in their craft, and there isn't any good way to use test data in place of this sort of substantive feedback:
Without this investment I don’t think an evaluation system will get enough credibility with the teachers or provide enough specific feedback to help teachers improve. Looking at test scores is also valuable for most subjects, but test score data mostly just identifies who is succeeding—it doesn’t show a teacher what needs to change.
To me, this is a really big idea.  It's too big for any district or state to do it casually.  It's the kind of thing that any system should review and discuss with great care before jumping in --but it also has enough potential benefits to be worth exactly that sort of study.

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