Reflections on Common Core and Measuring Teacher Performance

Reflections on Common Core and Measuring Teacher Performance

Jeff Ibsen, West Hartford, Connecticut, is a retired middle school teacher, corporate labor relations and human resources manager, and former head of investigations for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

In Connecticut, the recent rollout of the Common Core State Standards has engendered much public discussion. Former West Hartford Superintendent Matthew Borrelli said in February, “The best teachers have always been the best because of who they are and how they teach … Give teachers the support they need and a valid evaluation plan and the children will be well served.” I responded, in a February 18th letter to the editor, printed in the Hartford Courant, as follows:

“Finally, some common sense on school reform. The Common Core standards are terrific. Anyone who reads them will agree. But (as Matthew Borrelli says), real school reform comes from instructional support and a valid evaluation plan. How is that done? By describing good teaching, then discussing – teacher and leader – what’s been observed. That’s work, but it’s not complicated. It’s supportive, and it’s valid.”

And, also from me, this month:

“Personnel tools must be valid to be defensible. Valid means the tool measures what it says it measures, and nothing but what it says it measures. Student outcomes on the Common Core will henceforth serve as a personnel evaluation tool – influencing promotion, retention and compensation – yet student outcomes, everyone knows, come from much more than the teacher’s performance … “ Hartford Courant, March 18, 2014.

So, student outcomes are, on their face, an invalid personnel selection tool for measuring teacher performance. Savvy labor and employment lawyers will have little trouble attacking personnel actions – disparate promotions, dismissals or compensation – based in significant part on student outcomes.

So, what to do?

Just as in the private sector, just as in manufacturing or in finance or in IT or in any other enterprise employing people, the education community must have a means of assessing its return on salary and benefit expense. And it has, in the past. Schools have had in place classroom observation and teacher performance evaluation protocols. However, just as in private sector employee performance evaluation, evaluation of education professionals has often been pro forma. Private sector human resources leaders for fifty years have been grappling with employee performance evaluation, to give it value; education leaders are just now getting started. Remarkable that there has been no feed between the education community and the private sector human resources profession! Especially in Connecticut, home to many corporations, rich with seasoned, skilled HR professionals, none served on the state panel that designed the model teacher and school administrator evaluation program!

First, the standards of employee performance must be developed with the participation of the users. The appraisal process should vest autonomy in leaders so they will use it with care and confidence. The line employees (in this case, teachers) should join in the definition of effective performance so they readily perform accordingly. In Connecticut, local school district professional development committees (presumably representing the teachers in the district, if there’s been outreach to them) already must participate in the development of local teacher evaluation programs. CGS 10-220a(b), amended, Public Act 13-245. Early in Connecticut it was said,“The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.” Thomas Hooker, Hartford, 1638. Powerful then; powerful today.

Second, the standards should be all about behavior – behavior can be observed; behavior is real. All other constructs are just that: attempts to construct an artificial indicator. Why make it difficult? If we can define, among ourselves, what behaviors on the job are most likely to lead to the results we want, then those are the behaviors that describe effective job performance. Just observe, and rate. And standards bottomed on incumbent/user input? Standards derived directly from the incumbent/user are by definition content valid.

Third, rate simply as “effective” or “other.” When we “… attempt to use the results of appraisal to make discriminations much finer than this, we are quite probably deluding ourselves,” Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise, 1960. Finer gradations cannot reliably be applied, rater to rater, rating event to rating event, with any reasonable consistency. “Exemplary?” Or “proficient?” So much anxiety, to what end? Ineffective teaching quickly is revealed to the observer focused on well defined behaviors. Once identified, it can be addressed, using commonly accepted performance management tools. Uncovering ineffective teaching is the leading theme of evaluation reform – thus, accomplished. “Effective” performance will be made more effective by the ensuing leader/teacher interactions. And ratings of “effective” and “other” are sufficient to support personnel decisions and equal employment opportunity compliance – in fact, more defensible than are finer gradations.

Fourth, it’s all about the conversation. Here, not elsewhere, is where there’s a real need for structure, in the conversation between the leader and the employee – in this case, the teacher. Whatever may be the job performance standards, or the rating scale or gradations, how the leader conducts the after-observation meeting and job performance discussion will generate feelings that can either motivate or scuttle job performance for the ensuing period. Communication about job performance treads heavily upon the employee’s self image, leaving the employee vulnerable and emotionally charged. Feelings about the content of the conversation, or the leader, can come to displace any useful discussion of the discussion content itself. Too bad, because it is at this very moment that changes in classroom teaching, leading to improvement in student learning, and achievement, are born …

As charged as the communication may be, it must be honest. The point of the discussion is to share information that is critical to both parties. The messages cannot be oblique or ambiguous.

One would think educators would excel at this. Education is a social experience. “The immediate and direct concern of an educator is … with the situations in which interaction takes place … not only words spoken but the tone of voice … the total social set-up of the situation in which a person is engaged,” John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938. However, the job performance discussion is an intense and emotionally charged personal interaction. So, careful guidance is needed.

There should be a pre-observation meeting. There should be a draft of the evaluation report, open to changes. There should be an invitation to the employee to speak first. “Critical incidents” should be noted, tied to specific behaviors earlier identified as desirable, and the employee should be allowed input as to whether those incidents fairly illustrate performance. The report should be largely narrative, left to the parties to develop. It’s their relationship, and they should be allowed to own it, to flesh it out, each party being heard, and to record it. Bottom line, has performance been “effective,” or “other?”

The leader is an educator in this setting. Just as in the classroom, is there rapport, conducive to learning? Is the employee engaged? Are transitions smooth from one phase of the meeting to the next? Does the leader connect the meeting back to previous learning? Forward? Are questions clear? Do they provoke thought? Reflection? Does the leader continuously monitor for understanding? Adjust?

And a performance goal – was the last one attained? And maybe set a new one? There should be one wherever the performance was rated “other,” but also why not where the rating was “effective?” This is the time for the leader and the employee to highlight, together, what is especially challenging, and even fun, to do in the work. Here one weaves the desired performance behaviors right into the work. Ask the employee to craft the goal. It’s the employee’s work! Then negotiate, decide it, and record it.

Goal setting is itself an instructional strategy (Robert Marzano, et al, Classroom Instruction that Works, 2001). So for students, so also for employees, to elicit behaviors that lead to desired job outcomes. Set goals and discuss feedback regularly, for optimal results. Quarterly goals, and evaluation, work best.

And employee development? Connect it here. If not here, when? How can one know development needs without connecting to job performance? Development that does not meet the employee’s real, on-the-job performance needs is nothing but a distraction from lesson prep and instruction time. It does nothing to enhance student achievement. A simple “development contract” is one of many ways to embed development, right away, into the job. Root cause analysis of systemic obstacles to effective job performance may also be a course to follow, right away or in a follow-on meeting with others. And in Connecticut, building a local repository of best classroom practices is already mandated by law, as is teacher development done predominantly by individual, or small group, instruction.

And compensation? There are countless approaches. Bottom line: customize, with user input. As in the classroom, so in personnel management: differentiation is the pathway to added value.

Fifth, rate the rater. Ratings of similar performance, by different raters, should be equivalent. They are treated as if they are, so they must be made to be so. If not, the entire process can be challenged as arbitrary. Therefore, leaders must be evaluated in how they evaluate. Use the same process to get there. That is, identify with the leaders the on-the-job leader behaviors that take one there. Describe them. Those descriptions become the standards for evaluation of the leaders in their evaluation of others.

Leaders then must be observed. Following observation comes an evaluation meeting discussion, a report, perhaps a performance goal, then a development connection – everything in place for the employees they lead must also be in place for the leaders. It’s the only guarantee of process integrity.

In summary, the Common Core State Standards inform the profession on instruction, and beautifully so. However, they do not give a process for evaluating teacher job performance. Employee performance evaluation is a human resources management function, and should be undertaken as such.

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