Teacher Evaluation: Don’t Forget the Science Fairs

Teacher Evaluation: Don’t Forget the Science Fairs

My middle school scientists just rocked their science fair. They worked hard and I am deeply inspired by and proud of their results.

I teach in Manhattan at a traditional public middle school. My students are 100 percent Latino, 95 percent free lunch, 33 percent English Language Learners and 26 percent Special Education. As part of the high expectations we set for our students, Science Fair participation is a requirement for every student.

Every 8th grade project was completed in partnership with graduate students in labs at Columbia University. All through January I caught the train with my students after school to head to campus for data collection. In the end, every student completed his or her project, report and presentation.

The day of the fair was electric. I was anxious to see their work on display. They showed up in their best professional dress (the bowties were a nice touch). As the judges (volunteering professors and students from labs at Marymount Manhattan College, Hunter College, Columbia University, Westchester Community College and the NYC Center for Space Science Education, as well as donors and executives from Fortune 500 companies) arrived, I watched as my students stood tall, introduced themselves with a well-practiced and firm handshake and began to present.

My kids did great.

While there were flaws, the fair was a success. Students were begging for more judges and bragging about how many they’d had. In the course of an hour, each group presented to at least 5 separate judges. Seeing pride and confidence in my students is so rewarding. I want them to forever know that their own actions are the source of that pride; that they always have control over it.

The judges seemed to have enjoyed themselves as much as the students. Jerry Ostriker, a renowned astrophysicist wrote the following:

“The whole experience was inspiring to me. The enthusiasm of the students, the intelligence, good will and wisdom of those in charge of the school were so impressive to me … overall they were teaching the students in the best possible way, how science is done and how one should report on results. I was most impressed when one presenter said ‘the results are inconclusive, I think’. Great that they even had that concept.”

Naomi Seligman, a businesswoman who runs an organization of Fortune 500 CIOs wrote:

“It was such fun! … The kids were a joy and the entire experience warmed my week and month … their seriousness of purpose, poise (under difficult circumstances), and organization were just terrific … I feel very fortunate to be connected – even at the periphery.”

This science fair was better than any I’d organized before. The fair demonstrated my effectiveness as an educator perfectly. Each student’s end products and presentations were the result of thoughtful planning, appropriate scaffolding and targeted feedback.

In reality my successes as a teacher in planning, organizing and executing the science fair has next to nothing to do with how I am formally evaluated as a teacher.

Districts in New York State are currently formulating a revised teacher evaluation system. In New York City where I teach, no such system has been agreed upon. As a result, my effectiveness and rating as a science teacher currently rests on a minimum of one (maximum of two) formal classroom observations per year to be rated as either ‘S’ for satisfactory or ‘U’ for unsatisfactory.

I’m fortunate to have a supportive administration that provides useful feedback in pre-observation meetings. I believe my administration genuinely views observations in good faith and wants to support my professional growth. That being said, to base an annual evaluation of a teacher on a single period of teaching is senseless.

At year’s end my personnel file will only contain a write up from the formal observation and a rating: Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory.

Such an oversimplified evaluation system degrades the teaching profession. As many states (including New York) move to reform their evaluation systems, they must make room for multiple measures of effectiveness.

In addition to student outcomes on standardized tests and formal observations, we must not forget the science fairs.

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