03/27/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

Effective Instruments for Teacher Evaluation: What Education Ministers and Union Leaders Think

Last week, ministers of education and union leaders from the best performing and most rapidly education systems met in Amsterdam to discuss how to evaluate teachers effectively. The question of what instruments should be used to evaluate teaching sparked one of the most lively debates.

Divorcing the kind of instruments that are used for appraisal from the kind of teaching that should be valued was seen by many participants as one of the greatest pitfalls of current appraisal systems. Everyone acknowledged that the essence of teaching is displayed in the classroom. That's why almost all countries use classroom observations as part of their appraisal processes. Most teacher-appraisal models also require teachers and school leaders to agree on performance goals against which teachers are then evaluated. Having teachers evaluate their own performance was considered essential too, as self-appraisal encourages teachers to reflect on factors that impact on their teaching. In some countries, students, parents and other teachers are surveyed for their views on teachers' performance. These perspectives can have a significant impact since behavior is often influenced by what peers and leaders think, do and consider acceptable. As one minister put it, appraisals need to go beyond teachers talking to other teachers and government officials; they must include other stakeholders' perspectives. Participants also presented evidence that the main players in a school tend to share similar views as to who is highly respected for their professional behavior, even if they may not be able to define exact criteria that characterize that behavior.

Norway's teachers' union and student organization have worked together to develop principles and guidelines for meaningful teacher appraisal by students. In Sweden too, teachers often conduct surveys among their students to obtain feedback on their teaching practices.

Yet everyone acknowledged that in some places, the vast majority of teachers get high performance ratings on all of those things, while at the country level, student performance is unsatisfactory. Such mismatches between the messages conveyed to teachers and the actual performance of education systems underline why it is so important to build student outcomes into the critical path of teacher appraisal instruments. Many countries already do so: Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed by TALIS said that student test scores are an important part of the feedback they received.

Still, while everyone recognized that it is conceptually important to incorporate student learning growth into the appraisal of teachers, the summit exposed many practical problems which available instruments entail. Some participants suggested that there are more practical ways to leverage knowledge on student learning outcomes than census-based student testing regimes and that further developing those alternatives should be a priority. There was concern that undue focus on those outcomes that can be easily measured may detract attention from outcomes that are important but more difficult to quantify.

There was also concern that the link between what teachers do and what students learn is difficult to establish, since student learning outcomes are shaped by many teachers and contextual factors. While this was, unsurprisingly, one of the most controversial issues discussed at this summit, participants agreed that there is an urgent need to advance a shared vision of what the learning outcomes of education should be and how they should be measured. They agreed, too, that these outcomes should be broadly conceived and comprise cognitive, interpersonal and intra-personal skills, and that due consideration needs to be given to the short- as well as the long-term impact of those outcomes. As the rapporteur put it, such a shared vision will need to guide the collaboration of government and teachers' union leaders in the ambitious task of improving schools, and all policies and initiatives to support improvement in education systems need to be aligned with that shared vision. Although measurement remains imperfect, perfection is often the enemy of the good. As one speaker noted, there is now considerable knowledge about effective teaching practices available, and it is time to start to acting on that knowledge.

Of course, the effectiveness of appraisals depends critically on the knowledge and skills that evaluators have to assess teachers -- and on the extent to which teachers are prepared to use the results for improvement. As one minister noted, education administrations and schools are people organizations and should behave as such in their approach to management. That means extending appraisal and quality-assurance systems to include social accountability for the governance and leadership of the education sector, including assessing the soundness and effectiveness of education policies and, in particular, accountability for whether societies and governments are investing educational resources effectively.

There was agreement that appraisal needs to become everybody's business. Public policy is the basis for designing appraisal systems and establishing the norms that regulate them. Inspectorates can offer important insights on leadership and management, the quality of teaching and school climate. In some countries, professional teacher organizations take the lead in helping schools apply appraisal procedures. In many countries, teacher appraisal increasingly also draws on experienced peers, seeking, as one of the speakers put it, to improve teaching by teachers for teachers. These peer evaluators are usually accomplished teachers who are recognized for their knowledge and pedagogical expertise. And, as always, the most successful appraisal practices involve multiple evaluators and reflect teachers' views.

Clearly, appraisal is only effective if the results are used effectively. That means feeding information on performance back to teachers and school leaders; designing professional-development activities to improve teaching practices; establishing rewards, support systems and consequences that flow from appraisal; and also developing channels through which the information gathered feeds into policy development.

A clear and transparent link between performance appraisal and professional-development opportunities is key for improving teaching practice. Participants noted that, without this link, appraisal processes won't be taken seriously or will be met with mistrust by teachers. Teachers need to see appraisals as the basis for professional growth, regardless of their current level of performance. Such formative appraisal plays the most important role in most appraisal systems. However, many countries use teacher appraisal to determine career advancement and rewards. Indeed, recognizing and rewarding teaching excellence was widely seen as central for retaining effective teachers and for making teaching an attractive career choice. However, most countries do not directly link teacher-appraisal results to pay; instead, the link is indirect, made through career diversity and progression. Results are also often used to make decisions at key points in a teacher's career, such as at the end of the probationary period or when a contract is up for renewal. And they can influence decisions to appoint a teacher to a given post. In some instances, rewards acknowledge groups of teachers and are distributed at the school or grade level rather than given to individuals. Numerous participants were of the view that the percentage of under-performing teachers was likely to be small such that it would be unwise to focus teacher appraisal efforts on the objective of identifying those teachers.

All this being said, it became evident that in many countries there is still no clearly designed career path for teachers, and the organizational structures of schools are often flat, with few posts available to which to be promoted. This undermines the link between appraisal, professional development and career progression. Indeed, across countries, only 16 percent of the teachers surveyed by TALIS said their appraisal led to real career advancement and only 27 percent reported that it led to changes in work responsibilities that made their job more attractive.

Finally, many participants spoke about the importance of trust as an essential condition for effective appraisal and school improvement. There was a time when the public turned to teachers to make judgements about educational quality. Now the public seeks to make judgements about the quality of teachers. On the one hand, teachers need to trust the appraisal system and the individuals carrying out the appraisals. On the other hand, teachers need, as one teacher put it, earn the trust in their work. Effective appraisal is the foundation for both. At the core of educational improvement is learning -- learning by students, by teachers, by administrators and by policy makers. But as the rapporteur noted, no one learns very much when fear rules; thus it is important to be sure that appraisal regimes do not inadvertently create a climate of fear among teachers.

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