Boards & Teaching Practice

Time to Bring School Boards Up-to-Speed with Teacher Performance

Wayne Ogden

Taxpayers in Michigan want their school boards to work. A recent survey of registered voters in that state revealed that just under half of the respondents believed that the number one job of school board members is improving student performance. It seems logical that this would be a universal expectation for board members across the country. However, the requirements for the training of school board members to perform this critical set of duties vary widely among the fifty states.

When and where state mandated training does occur it is often of short duration and broad in topic orientation. Since 2003 in Massachusetts, for example, newly elected school committee members are required to receive 8 hours of training in the following topics: school finance, open meeting law, public records law, conflict of interest law, special education law, collective bargaining, school leadership standards & evaluations, and school committee roles & responsibilities. State monitoring of such training is lacking, however, and neither student performance nor teacher performance is specifically mentioned on this list.

The realities of school board training to support their district schools in improving achievement seems on a collision course with emerging federal and state regulations that will change teacher and principal evaluations procedures in the very near future, in some states as early as 2012. States that are in receipt of federal “Race To The Top” (RTTP) funds are expected to include student performance data in the evaluations of teachers and principals. Many states and school districts are now introducing the concept of performance-based merit pay into their collective bargaining agreements with teacher unions. This all seems to be happening at warp speed yet, few school boards have much understanding of what constitutes good teacher performance is and, correspondingly, what good teacher evaluation looks like.

Educational researchers know that collaborative, highly-skilled teachers working with school leaders who monitor and support the planning, instruction and assessment practices of their faculty combine to create and sustain schools with strong student performance. School leaders also know that the supervision and evaluation of instructional performance is the most important, difficult, complicated and time-consuming work they do. Despite these realities, school board members throughout our nation remain amazingly agnostic of their own districts’ expectation, practices and challenges around teacher evaluation.

In an experience that contrasts this national disconnect, I had the pleasure of working with Superintendent/Principal Charlie Meyers of the Fishers Island School in New York State. Supt. Meyers was running the first in a series of trainings to orient his five newly elected School Board members to the complexities of supervision and evaluation of the Island’s educators, and thereby to the intricacies of their own work in helping to oversee it.

Leading up to this orientation session were almost two years of work by Island educators and their school leadership spent in developing a teacher supervision and evaluation rubric intended to take the mystery out of the evaluation process and establish very clear standards for performance. While the School Board was willing to include the new process and tool as parts of its collective bargaining agreement with the teachers, they had not had an opportunity to understand its full complexity and the significant improvement it would be over their previous evaluation tool.

Superintendent Meyers and I decided that the best training for the board members would be for them to assume the role of observer and evaluator of a teacher’s in-class performance. Using video of a volunteer teacher from another school district I asked the board members to view and judge the teacher’s performance using two different tools. The first process required them to make a summary judgment (giving the teacher a grade) for the instruction they observed using a rating scale of 1 (low score) – 5 (high score) and then to describe salient characteristics of the teaching that caused them to make their judgment. The superintendent participated in the exercise but spoke last in the rating and discussion activities to minimize his impact on the judgment of board members. The ratings of the school board’s five members varied by 3 points on the scale (a low of 3 to several members rating it a 5). The superintendent’s assigned rating of 2 broadened the range further.

The discussion that followed the rating exercise was rich and enthusiastic, and often perplexing, as board members and the superintendent probed each other’s thinking. Board member awareness of the potential for problems in the face of such variation among the observers was increased dramatically. A subsequent reassessment of the teaching performance after our discussion period saw each of the raters move to a score of 3, the midpoint of the scale.

After a second debriefing of their collective judgment/ratings about the instruction, the board was asked to reevaluate the teaching segment by applying the school’s new teacher performance rubric. That rubric correlated likely teaching behaviors into state-aligned performance standards, descriptive indicators, and four possible levels (judgments) of teacher adherence to performance levels.

While the time available to us did not allow completed discussion of each teaching standard, their associated indicators, and performance levels, a significant learning moment happened for board members as they began to realize the power and complexities of making claims about teaching performance using evidence gathered in the observation process, followed by making judgments according to the indicators of teaching practice contained in the rubric. As we wrapped up the training session, board members were animated about their “ah-hah” moments, expressing a new appreciation for the complexities of teacher performance, and how difficult the process is to evaluate such performances with fairness and accuracy. The meeting closed with all board members enthusiastically requesting to revisit this topic several more times in the coming year.