Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Let's Cancel the Dog-and-Pony Show: Improve Teacher Assessment by Replacing the Announced, Long-From Evaluation Visit with as Many as 10 Shorter, Unannounced Visits Fortified with Timely, Valuable, Face-to-Face Feedback

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Let's Cancel the Dog-and-Pony Show: Improve Teacher Assessment by Replacing the Announced, Long-From Evaluation Visit with as Many as 10 Shorter, Unannounced Visits Fortified with Timely, Valuable, Face-to-Face Feedback

Article excerpt

Reading the voluminous literature on teacher supervision and evaluation over the last few years, I've been struck by a major blind spot among virtually all researchers and reformers: the dog-and-pony show. In most schools, by contract or by tradition, administrators give advance notice of their formal classroom observations and teachers quite understandably take their performance up a notch or two. In addition, students usually behave better when there's a suit in the room.

The New Teacher Project's Widget Effect study in 2009 found tremendous grade inflation in teacher evaluations across the country--for example, 25,332 Chicago teachers were rated superior, 9,176 excellent, 2,232 satisfactory, and 149 unsatisfactory during a recent five-year period. But people haven't zeroed in on the most obvious reason: A lot of teachers put on a special show for the announced visit and administrators play along.

When I make this point to educators around the country, they occasionally push back. "I want to see what the teacher is capable of," said one former superintendent. Fine, but it's much more important to see how well she teaches day by day. "I can see right through the dog-and-pony show," said a seasoned principal. Perhaps, but can you document that in a credible way? "I need that preobservation conference for feedback on my les-son planning," said a teacher. Come on, how helpful is discussing a lesson plan once a year--especially if it's atypical?

Of course, not all scheduled evaluation visits are off base. But in my experience in all kinds of schools over 43 years, it's all too common for teachers to put on a glamorized lesson, masking less impressive day-to-day performance. There's a lot of mediocre teaching out there, and most of it is flying under the radar. This contributes directly to America's widening achievement gaps, since students with any kind of disadvantage desperately need effective teaching.

Why are so many educators willing to give credence to observations based on announced visits? Perhaps it's avoidance--observing a plausible lesson allows administrators to get the evaluation off their desks and skirt difficult conversations about mediocre and ineffective teaching. Perhaps it's a failure to distinguish between good teachers and good teaching--seeing a good lesson makes us feel like we know the teacher, and we trust he or she will be like that all the time. This is called the fundamental attribution error.

Or perhaps it's because of the way the conventional teacher evaluation model limits administrators' options. Supervisors are usually required to have a preobservation conference with each teacher, sit through a whole lesson, write it up, and then have a postobservation conference. All of this takes at least four hours, and, because administrators have so many other things on their plates, visiting each teacher more than once a year is very difficult. The idea of making a single annual evaluation visit unannounced strikes most people as unfair. That's why districts, even without union insistence, have administrators schedule their formal observations in advance.

This process might seem benign and unavoidable, but it has serious consequences. If evaluations don't accurately describe day-to-day classroom performance, everything else falls apart: Effective teachers don't get authentic praise, subpar teachers don't get targeted coaching and support, and more than a few ineffective teachers are still in classrooms harming children's futures. To put it bluntly, an evaluation process that relies on announced visits is inaccurate, dishonest, and ineffective.

A growing number of principals are experimenting with an alternative to the dog-and-pony show--an approach that can win teachers' trust, make better use of administrators' time, enhance instructional leadership and collegiality, and usher in improvements in teaching and learning. It has three layers: changing the structure, improving the human dynamic, and managing the details. …

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