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A Non-Traditional Approach to Teacher Supervision and Evaluation

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “The Truth About Teacher Evaluation” by Kim Marshall in American School Board Journal, April 2017 (Vol. 204, #2, p. 76),
In this American School Board Journal article, Kim Marshall challenges school board members and superintendents to ask some tough questions about their teacher-evaluation process. Are almost all teachers getting good to excellent ratings while supervisors privately acknowledge that mediocre and ineffective practices continue in classrooms? Are principals spending hundreds of hours on the traditional process, or some variation of it, with little or no impact? Have people become cynical about evaluations, regarding them as a necessary bureaucratic chore that makes little difference in classrooms? If so, says Marshall, it might be time to “confront the brutal facts and make some changes,” because teacher evaluation can actually be a powerful lever for improving teaching and learning.
Four hard truths: First, students learn considerably more from some teachers than from others – and that’s because of specific practices that effective teachers implement day by day. Second, every school has a range of teaching quality from excellent to less-than-effective, which means that the work of improving student achievement must be done within each building. Third, students who walk into school with any kind of disadvantage (special needs, parental conflict, bullying) have a more urgent need for good teaching than their luckier classmates. And fourth, the traditional teacher-evaluation process makes it very difficult for principals to change mediocre and ineffective teaching practices.
What’s wrong with the traditional process? Surely it makes sense for principals to have a pre-observation conference with a teacher, take detailed notes while observing a full lesson, write up a thorough analysis, and have a post-observation conference. But this time-honored process has three design flaws:
- Because each evaluation is so time-consuming (about four hours), teachers can’t be observed more than once or twice a year – hardly enough to change performance.
- If the teacher has advance notice of the observation (often the case), the principal sees optimal, not typical performance (the time-honored “dog-and-pony show”), which means that less-than-effective practices are probably not going to be addressed.
- When principals give detailed feedback, teachers are likely find it overwhelming, poorly timed (April or May), and unhelpful.
“Because of these built-in problems,” says Marshall, “traditional teacher evaluation is generally inaccurate, ineffective, and dishonest to parents and stakeholders.” Worse still, the hundreds of hours spent on the old process is time not spent on research-based practices that are much more likely to produce results: building a positive student and adult culture; orchestrating professional working conditions and teacher teamwork around curriculum planning and analysis of student work; hiring well and effectively onboarding new teachers; making frequent classroom visits; appreciating and spreading effective practices; and giving tough-love feedback when needed.
Despite all this, the traditional process has had a life of its own, persisting with some variations in most districts across the nation. Then along came No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core, raising the stakes and stirring up concerns about high-stakes accountability for students and teachers. Now ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) is the law of the land, giving states and districts much more freedom in how they evaluate teachers. This is a golden opportunity, says Marshall, to rethink how things are done. He suggests replacing the traditional process with short, frequent, unannounced, systematic classroom visits followed by face-to-face debriefs and saving a thorough rubric evaluation until the end of the school year. Some details:
• Length and frequency – A 10-15-minute classroom visit is amazingly revealing, says Marshall, provided there are enough of them (he suggests one a month), and that the supervisor systematically visits at the beginning, middle, and end of lessons and different times of the day and days of the week. It’s a good idea for novice teachers to get more frequent full-lesson feedback, but this is best handled by instructional coaches or peer observers, with principals keeping up a steady rhythm of mini-observations for all teachers.
• Look-fors – “Short visits are highly informative if supervisors are humble, curious, present, and low-tech,” says Marshall. “Visitors who use a laptop or tablet to tally data or script every detail miss a lot of the real action in classrooms. And using a checklist or rubric to score the lesson distracts the supervisor – there’s simply too much going on to capture in a detailed format.” Supervisors might keep three possible questions in mind: What are students supposed to be learning? Is this the best way to teach it? And are they all learning?
• In-person coaching – The best way to build trust, share insights, ask questions, learn what the teacher is proud of and worried about, and spark non-defensive reflection is a face-to-face chat, preferably in the teacher’s classroom when students aren’t there. The supervisor should focus on a single “leverage point” and follow up with a brief summary sent electronically (one clever software program limits the message to 1,000 characters).
• Time management – Each short-observation cycle takes about 30 minutes – 10 in the classroom, 10 for the debrief, 10 for the write-up – and doing two or three of these is manageable in all but the craziest school day, says Marshall. He calculates that in a medium-size school, doing ten per teacher takes considerably less time than traditional evaluations – 175 hours versus 300 hours. “Think about the difference,” he says: “In the same four hours it takes to do one traditional evaluation, a supervisor can do eight mini-observation cycles. Not only is that much more productive, but the time saved can be spent working with teacher teams, thinking about curriculum, and being more attentive to colleagues and parents.”
• Summative evaluation – Marshall believes rubrics are not appropriate for evaluating single classroom observations, but rather, should be used at three points in the year: In September, teachers self-assess and set 2-3 professional growth goals with their supervisor; in mid-January, supervisor and teacher compare tentative scores on the full rubric and discuss disagreements and goals going forward; and at the end of the year, they repeat the mid-year process and finalize the evaluation. Rubrics act as an effective memory prompt for teachers and supervisors, says Marshall, pulling out impressions from classroom visits, conversations, and other points of contact and producing a “surprisingly accurate picture of overall performance.”
• Skillset – Some educators worry that not enough principals have the skills and wisdom to make good use of short classroom visits, but Marshall points to several design elements that might convince skeptics otherwise:
- Unannounced visits confront supervisors with practices that clearly need improvement (Would I want my own child in this classroom?).
- Frequent visits allow supervisors to focus on one leverage point at a time, making difficult conversations less difficult.
- Face-to-face chats in the classroom (when students aren’t there), along with focusing on one improvement item at a time, reduce teacher defensiveness.
- Talking after each observation lets teachers educate their supervisors about important background information and coach them on curriculum and pedagogy.
- Multiple visits give supervisors multiple at-bats to improve their skills.
All these “bring out the best in supervisors,” says Marshall, “and provide a pathway for improvement for those who aren’t currently up to snuff.”
• Superintendents – Those who directly supervise principals are in the best position to assess their building leaders’ “eye” for instruction. Supervisors need to be held accountable for making frequent classroom visits, following up appropriately, addressing schoolwide needs in professional development, and continuously improving teaching and learning. The most effective approach is for the superintendent (or a designee) to regularly co-observe 2-3 classrooms with the principal and debrief about the kind of feedback (or praise) each teacher might be given. Superintendents can also use their regular principals’ meetings to discuss the finer points of classroom observations, watch videos, role-play feedback conversations, discuss challenging case studies, and look for trends across schools.
This approach to teacher supervision and evaluation sounds promising, but is there research evidence that it works? Not yet, says Marshall, but districts using this approach aren’t acting irrationally. That’s because mini-observations support seven factors that have a robust track record for improving teaching and learning:
- Building relational trust;
- Orchestrating professional working conditions;
- Principals managing by walking around and being highly visible instructional leaders;
- Teachers getting frequent, specific appreciation and/or suggestions;
- Early intervention with instructional problems;
- Developing teachers’ skills at checking for understanding and following up with students (when supervisor and teacher discuss whether all students are learning);
- Seeing on-the-ground evidence of teachers’ curriculum planning and data analysis.
“All this happens much more readily when principals are in classrooms every day and following up with teachers about what they see,” says Marshall. “In short, there’s ample reason to believe that mini-observations will come through with flying colors when the research is done – and every reason not to wait around for that far-off day.” Among the systems that have been using mini-observations successfully for years: Manhasset, New York; Hamilton County/Chattanooga, Tennessee; and the Uncommon Schools charter network.
Are school boards micromanaging their superintendent if they get involved with teacher evaluation? Not at all, says Marshall. How teachers are held accountable is at the heart of the board’s policy role, and it’s entirely appropriate for school boards to ask if their district’s system is successfully meeting these fundamental goals:
- Quality assurance – Can district leaders honestly say there is effective or highly effective teaching in every classroom virtually all the time?
- Feedback – Are principals frequently noticing and praising good classroom practices and coaching teachers who need improvement?
- Motivation – Are teachers challenged to bring their A game every day and reflect continuously about their work?
- Personnel decisions – Are principals making the right calls on retaining struggling but promising teachers, granting tenure to those who truly deserve it, putting exemplary teachers to work in PD or mentoring roles, and dismissing educators who are persistently ineffective?
“If the answer to one or more of these questions is NO,” says Marshall, “… the next step is crafting policies that will turn things around.”

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