Politically independent, and typically loathe to share my eclectic political perspectives, I will say that there is much I admire about New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On education policy though, I’m a skeptic, growing more disillusioned. Principal of an independent school and humbly reticent about making remarks on public education, I comment on this week’s education news out of sadness; increasingly convinced that to improve our schools, educators can together design and present alternative approaches to evaluating our own effectiveness.
Mayor Bloomberg, as reported in an article in The Wall Street Journal, declared this past Monday that he wants teachers’ evaluations open for all to see. Why, Mayor Bloomberg? His answer: doing so will “provide pressure to constantly upgrade.”
Pressure to upgrade? Really? Does pressure improve practice?
Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), would likely disagree. Dweck compellingly describes the differences between fixed and growth mindsets, shared in greater detail in this 2007 article in Stanford Magazine. Dweck explains in Mindset that those with a fixed mindset believe their qualities are carved in stone, thus experiencing great urgency to prove themselves. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe basic qualities can be cultivated through effort, inspiring improvement and accomplishment. Not only individuals, but organizations have mindsets, and a culture of judging puts everyone in a fixed mindset. Instead of learning and growing, everybody’s fear of being judged paralyzes, impeding creativity and innovation. Pressure to upgrade? Sounds like a recipe for developing a culture of fear and fixed mindset.
So what’s the alternative? Dweck looks to CEO’s for insight, finding that in stark distinction to fixed-minded CEO’s, growth-minded CEO’s, the type featured by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great (2001), are deeply concerned with mentoring and employee development programs, seeking ways of providing feedback to employees in ways that promote learning and future success.
So, Mayor Bloomberg, why should we evaluate? Not, I would argue, to provide pressure. Instead, I would suggest, to offer support, guidance, and even at times, inspiration. As a principal, I would never be able to share honest reflections with teachers were those conversations, designed to be private, made public. For those teachers in jeopardy of dismissal, I need to be empowered to protect the dignity of professionals who, despite not being a match for our school, have strengths and have made contributions. Nonrenewal of contract is a painful decision, not to be taken lightly, nor publicized. For the majority of teachers, I need to be able to guide honest reflection on strengths and weaknesses, identifying areas for professional growth in a trusting and supportive environment.
So, what should teacher evaluations look like?
There are many possible forms, and like most serious learning resources, evaluation tools need to remain constantly a work in progress. Faculty members at our school are creating our own rubrics to assess excellence based on our school’s Standards for Professional Practice. We plan to use these rubrics for teachers to self-assess and for the educational leadership team to assess as well, leading to conversation on how teachers see their strengths and weakness and how the members of the educational leadership team see teachers’ strengths and weakness. I humbly view the rubrics as an assessment of my own knowledge of faculty in our school, and approach evaluation with trepidation. I understand that learning is complex and multiple measures of student learning and growth matter. I cannot imagine basing 40% of a teacher evaluation on one standardized test as is possible in New York City’s new system, nor for that matter on one formal observation, or indeed on one of anything. Effectiveness, like learning, is complex and requires multiple measures to assess. We must be careful about what we believe we know and cautious about judging skilled professionals or indeed about judging anybody. I wonder constantly how I can avoid acting as “expert”, regardless of the number of measures I amass, and instead function as a coach and a mentor. I question deliberately how I can nurture a growth mindset and facilitate teacher learning – helping good teachers become very good, very good teachers become great, and great teachers become even greater.
Luckily for our students, we are not and will not be required to publish our completed rubrics for all to see; neither will our rubrics be filed away for future reference only if a problem or a possibility for promotion arises. Our evaluation or rather professional learning rubrics will be living guides for our teachers – shaping professional learning goals, supports to achieve our goals, and assessments to recognize progress made. Our evaluations will, at their best, inspire nuanced, impactful, meaningful growth for the benefit of our children, based not on pressure and fear, but rather on joy and dedication. And that, Mayor Bloomberg, is a far more effective path than providing constant pressure to improve our schools.