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Teacher Evaluation I Can Believe In, From a Pittsburgh Principal

Education Post
November 12, 2014

By Michilene Pegher

I was a teacher five years ago when Pittsburgh Public Schools first launched RISE—its new teacher-evaluation system—and it caused quite a stir. The conflicting reports, mixed with the inevitable rumors about its purpose, had anxiety levels running high.

Then the work began. District and union leadership came together with teachers to create a tool that incorporated multiple measures into the evaluation system. The work took several years, and the first year of implementation was done as a test run, with no consequences.

As we learned more details, I and many of my colleagues began to take more of a “wait-and-see,” cautiously optimistic view of the program. I started to see it as a growing opportunity and a challenge.

I was tired of being “satisfactory” at the end of the year, given all of my extra duties and staff leadership, while other colleagues—many of whom left the building at 3 o’clock on most afternoons—received the same rating. We were all “satisfactory.” I went years without an observation, and never had a serious discussion about my practice with any district leaders.

‘Made a Believer Out of Me’

Then, after being evaluated twice using RISE’s multiple measures, I have to admit, it made a believer out of me. The evaluation process reflects what good teachers do. Using multiple measures offers the opportunity to reflect on practice and provides data to improve teaching and learning.

As a new principal in an urban school on the north side of Pittsburgh, I look to this process as a tool to improve teaching and learning together, collaboratively.

It is my belief that if teachers feel part of and invested in the entire process, they will value it and use it to improve practice. Building trust, and having teachers equipped and informed, is critical to dispelling the entrenched notion in schools that evaluations are often used as a “target tool” for principals to go after teachers. The use of multiple measures—administrator observation, school and student value-added measures, and student feedback on teachers—helps build confidence in the fairness and thoroughness of the system because they are an acknowledgment of the complexities and nuances of effective teaching.

If used correctly and appropriately, multiple measures can be used to acknowledge and demonstrate what exceptional teaching looks like. It is also a tool to grow our practice, but only when trust and collaboration is part of the equation that makes up teaching and learning.

The Lens of Both a Teacher and School Leader

And having now been both a teacher and principal working with this new system, I see how much leadership matters.

It is the most critical piece of making this support and evaluation tool work to push teachers to improve their practice and share insights into teaching and learning. If a principal does not view the process as a true growth model and expresses negativity and resentment toward the process, it will never be effective.

Another key to the program’s success is recognizing and addressing its flaws. And I have serious concerns with the way the state of Pennsylvania has approached the rollout. I do not believe it was presented or is used by the state as a growth tool. It comes off as more punitive. Therefore, it is crucial that districts implement it as a collaborative effort, by encouraging and incorporating feedback from teachers and school leaders.

Strong Support Makes All the Difference

Finally, it’s essential that teachers who are struggling and not meeting expectations receive strong support to help them improve. Quality professional development and targeted training can and does make all the difference in getting teachers to have confidence in the system and grow in their practice.

As a teacher, my initial reaction was one of fear of the unknown. As I moved through the process, I began to see that it gave me the opportunity to examine my practice, use data and discuss improvement opportunities for my students. It also validated my work and my efforts.

Now as a principal, I want the teachers to feel the same way about improving practice.

I see it as a collaborative effort focused first on support and improvement, and not a “gotcha”-type evaluation. Through the lens of both a teacher and school leader, I see RISE as a way to work as a team to recognize excellence and improve instruction for our students.