For the past decade, schools have been compiling stockpiles of data on student achievement, tracking everything from individual student progress year after year to the progress of similar students taught by different teachers. As debates over teacher assessments continue to rage, education leaders are grappling with big questions: What does effective teaching look like and how do we measure it?
For school leaders, measuring effective teaching is only half the equation. Delivering those measurements to teachers in a meaningful way comes with its own challenges. It takes a combination of keen observance and diplomacy, plus the ability to analyze data and place it within a larger context—skills many school leaders are often untrained in.
Without adequate training, leaders are unable to effectively use evaluations to maximize employee growth and effectiveness. In a study of district evaluation practices, virtually all teachers were rated as “good” or great,” while less than 1% received “unsatisfactory” ratings. Yet 81% of administrators and 57% of teachers have spotted poor performers among their colleagues.
Mishandled evaluation is a problem that’s deeply embedded in many district cultures.
“Evaluations are short and infrequent (most are based on two or fewer classroom observations, each 60 minutes or less), conducted by administrators without extensive training, and influenced by powerful cultural forces—in particular, an expectation among teachers that they will be among the vast majority rated as top performers,” says The New Teacher Project.
“School districts must begin to distinguish great from good, good from fair, and fair from poor. Effective teaching must be recognized; ineffective teaching must be addressed.”
1. Offer constructive criticism like a leader
Not only do evaluations often lack nuance, they’re also frequently incomplete. Nearly three in four teachers say their most recent evaluation didn’t identify any areas for development—the missing link that makes feedback effective at improving performance.
As published in Forbes, offering constructive feedback means painting a vision of success, being honest, using real-life examples to illustrate new tactics, leading by example (your passion and drive), and eliminating blame.
As the director of certificated human resources for Palm Springs Unified, Tony Signoret knows the best leadership strategies. He offered the following 4 pieces of advice on writing employee evaluations to foster growth.
2. Avoid tentative or mixed messages
Evaluating employee performance—and nudging them to improve—is often one of the most disconcerting aspects of a school leader’s job. To alleviate discomfort and avoid confrontation, many water down negative feedback with vague praise. The result is a diplomatic yet tentative evaluation that doesn’t truly tell the employee anything constructive.
“Tentative and mixed messages fail to provide any clear feedback and do not establish any urgency or need for improvement,” Signoret said. “It’s very important to avoid them.”
Example: The teacher’s warm rapport and quickness to praise made for a happy environment. While they love being called on, it would seem that children are somewhat reluctant to give reasons for their answers and may need to be stretched. It is suggested that you try Popsicle sticks and maybe rewards for thinking, which would be entirely consistent with the delightful way in which you motivate youngsters.
This type of narrative dances around the direct concern of the evaluator while failing to underscore the need for improvement.
3. Create evidence-based narratives
To avoid mixed messages, school leaders need to deliver feedback in a way that employees can clearly understand. Remember, you can be practical and factual while staying gracious and kind.
Evidence-based narratives are a form of structured feedback that begins with a clear one- or two-sentence opening statement followed by a brief narrative that supplies supportive evidence, Signoret says.
Example: Instructional minutes were not maximized during the activity. During the 50-minute period, only four vocabulary words were introduced. Nine minutes were used to distribute materials, 10 minutes were utilized for creating cooperative groups and 13 minutes were used for providing instructions. This allowed for less than 15 minutes of vocabulary instruction since 3 minutes were utilized to prepare for dismissal.
A well-crafted evidence-based narrative also includes examples or models for improvement, giving employees a roadmap for their progress.
4. Put quantitative feedback in context
Quantitative feedback helps pinpoint problems that need to be addressed and provides concrete evidence to support a leader’s concerns. An evaluation might include figures such as the number of students off task during a lesson or the amount of time spent on transitional activities vs. student engagement.
“Quantitative feedback is very useful when student data is being reviewed, but it’s crucial not to use the data in isolation,” Signoret said. “Instead, connect the data to strategies and systems that were poorly utilized or not utilized.”
For instance, school leaders can encounter problems with grade distribution, such as a high percentage of F’s in a class. While it may be virtually impossible to determine why a student receives an F, the principal can certainly address a lack of intervention utilized by the teacher.
5. Weigh the qualitative and the quantitative
Qualitative feedback is useful for demonstrating qualities that can’t be measured but nevertheless impact employee performance—such as a teacher’s classroom environment, classroom management skills, and professional collegiality. Unlike factual data, these observations are subjective in nature, which means leaders need to take care when using them.
It’s important to ensure qualitative feedback directly pertains to an employee’s effectiveness. It’s often tempting to disproportionately weigh qualitative traits such as accessibility or friendliness to offset seemingly negative feedback, but inflating an evaluation with personality-based observations doesn’t help teachers improve their performance in the framework of time, activities, and results.