Common sense is hardly commonplace in education policy today. Alliances are formed in Olympia, yet nobody is playing to let anyone else win. As a result of this mutual distrust, no improvements were made to our evaluation system during the recent legislative session.
Teacher evaluations have really become the crisis du jour in public education. Washington is at risk of losing its waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements and thus its control over approximately $40 million for low-income students. However, the debate in Olympia has largely been about preserving the quantity of federal funds, not the quality and strength of our teacher-evaluation system. So, while legislators were busy quarreling over whether to make student growth on statewide tests part of evaluations, they missed other opportunities to make actual improvements.
Done well, teaching is a highly complex art, and an evaluation of that art should not be simplistic. Evaluations should also be reliable enough to inspire trust among educators. The Washington State Teacher/Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP), first introduced in 2010, was definitely a step in the right direction. Teachers and principals are more focused on what students are learning than ever before, and they are looking at evidence of student growth. Yet, teacher evaluations haven’t exactly achieved a state of nirvana. In fact, there are several concrete ways in which they could still be improved.
With TPEP, a single observer still largely determines teacher evaluations. Usually, this is a school administrator. Even if that person is a dynamic instructional leader, and some are not, evaluation based on a single observer is bad science all the way around. So we still have a system that is devoid of checks and balances. That’s why we should consider multiple measures of a teacher’s effectiveness, such as student perception surveys and peer reviews, to increase reliability and fairness.
Adding these components to our evaluation system would strengthen its overall integrity and capture intangible teacher qualities that might otherwise get missed. But, in order for that to happen, warring tribes need to call a truce in Olympia. The education debate really shouldn’t be about “winners” and “losers.” It should be about ensuring every classroom has an effective teacher. That’s just common sense, if you ask me.
Todd Hausman is a veteran fourth-grade teacher at Lowell Elementary in Bellingham. He is currently a NEA/Teach Plus fellow and vice president of the board of Teachers United. He has also served as a union representative in Bellingham.