A Georgia high school revamps its apprach to appraisal and feedback

A false dichotomy handcuffs secondary school principals—that someone who evaluates teachers cannot also support them. This widely held belief impels numerous actions we make as leaders:

  • We complete our teacher evaluation observations but do not believe for an instant they make a difference.
  • We need to hire an instructional coach to give teachers real feedback. 
  • We (leaders and teachers) believe teacher evaluation to be a bureaucratic farce.

It is time to debunk the myth that teacher evaluation and support are mutually exclusive. Alpharetta High School (AHS) in Alpharetta, GA, decided to tackle this misconception. We learned an important lesson when we took on this project—the process of teacher evaluation doesn’t have to be primarily evaluative.

Situated in the Atlanta suburbs, AHS supports 2,000 students, and our administrative structure is quite commonplace: one principal, four assistant principals, and 10 department chairs. Each has teacher evaluation responsibilities: The principal functions as the primary evaluator of the assistant principals and the department chairs; the assistant principals serve as the primary evaluators of teaching staff; and the department chairs conduct brief (approximately 15-minute) observations of teachers.

Although Alpharetta High could boast high academic achievement (our SAT scores are the third-highest for a comprehensive high school in Georgia and we achieved an 86.3 percent pass rate on the 2,217 AP exams administered in 2015), we knew the school’s full potential was untapped, as teacher quality was uneven across the building.

Inter-rater reliability had been conducted numerous times in the past to make sure evaluators were “close enough” in their ratings using the minimal state teacher evaluation guidance. What we discovered was that the inter-rater reliability masked a larger issue—the root cause wasn’t related to what observers thought about what they saw, rather what the observers actually saw in classrooms.

DIEing Together

We took a page from the work of a nearby district, the City Schools of Decatur (CSD), which spent five years improving the quality of their written feedback. An unfortunate, but memorable, acronym served as the foundation for their observation practices—DIE (description, interpretation, and evaluation).

Using work from Harvard Project Zero and the School Reform Initiative, CSD had considered how teachers look at student work to gather insights. Student work protocols often include a step where adults describe the work, devoid of judgment. For instance: “In the writing, I see the transition word ‘next’ used four times.” This step assumes no one person can see everything in a child’s piece of work; our own eyes are limited. Later in the protocol, participants speculate about and interpret the creator’s possible intentions.  

Then and only then does an evaluative step take place. What is most notable about this step is that the evaluation is not about the work itself; rather, participants evaluate the next steps with this student and others like him/her.

We wondered: Since teachers were using these student work protocols in such powerful ways, why couldn’t we apply this to the work of adults?

So, we began sharing our written evaluations in our leadership team meetings (no small risk!). We were thankful our professional community had grown and developed over the past three years through training and tools from the School Reform Initiative. 

Sometimes our meetings were 100 percent professional development, using commonly watched video clips and tools like Poll Everywhere and Google Forms to anonymously project written feedback. School leaders and teacher leaders alike saw the disparity and inequity, noting the same unevenness in feedback quality as we had seen in teaching quality throughout our school. 

We then admitted, “We don’t know how to just describe. We constantly interpret and evaluate.” We agreed to prioritize description, setting a goal that written feedback would be 80 percent description and 20 percent interpretation/evaluation.

The department chairs in the room grew excited about their own teaching. Ally Tubiak, English department chair, reflects, “As a current teacher, I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to have someone come into your room for a few minutes and evaluate you on your overall performance. Descriptive feedback is better for any reflective teacher to use in informing their practices.

It lessens assumptions.”Building descriptive prowess took time and much practice. Just like the premise that no one teacher can see everything in a child’s piece of work, the same applied in observing—we needed each other to maintain accountability and track our growth. With that in mind, we used paired observations between department chairs, between administrators and department chairs, and between each person and an external coach. The coach serves as an important onboarding mechanism as new members join the team. 

Notable Changes  

This focus on feedback had an important consequence for all of us: shared expectations. Modeling was vital if we were to hold department chairs to the same standard of high-quality feedback. Gone are the days of the “pass over” teachers who pose no cause for worry. Although that practice may have held honorable intentions, unintended conventions ensue:

  1. I, as a department chair, don’t have areas in which to grow.
  2. I, as a department chair, wouldn’t benefit from descriptive feedback.
  3. If that’s the case, there are a couple of rock stars in my department who probably don’t need it either.
  4. I guess feedback is really only for some teachers who need it.

These assumptions were too destructive to be allowed to take root, so each teacher experienced the gift of feedback, loaded with description. We measured our feedback quality, not just description, using an innovation configuration map from Crafting the Feedback Teachers Need and Deserve: A Guide for Leaders by Thomas M. Van Soelen.

 A surprising paradox began to take place: Writing feedback in this way doesn’t take more time—it actually takes less. By focusing during the observation on description, more evidence is collected if an interpretive or evaluative statement needs to be made. Spending hours trying to write “just the right” words is replaced with rich description. 

Shining a Spotlight

A middle school principal colleague described his experience of learning how to write high-quality feedback in this way: “A spotlight has just been shined in a dark corner.” Remember the course sequence of leadership preparation programs? Even 20 years of being a leader doesn’t necessarily improve your written feedback (just as standing in water more frequently won’t improve your swimming strokes). 

“Traditionally, supervisory evaluations were written from the evaluative and analytical lens,” says Alpharetta High School English instructor Ginny Brown. “The data/transcript was not shared with the individual teacher; the individual teacher was simply ‘evaluated and diagnosed’ by a third party, and these evaluations were all too easy to dismiss. The evaluation process now becomes less about ‘going through the motions’ and more about seeing your practice clearly and strategically developing into a highly personalized plan for growth.”

Why not try it for yourself? Enter the classrooms of your most amazing teachers and offer them the gift of descriptive feedback.

Thomas M. Van Soelen is the president of Van Soelen & Associates in Lawrenceville, GA. Shannon N. Kersey is the principal at Alpharetta High School in Alpharetta, GA. Rebecca Perkins is an assistant principal for curriculum at Alpharetta High School.

Making It Work

How to implement this program at your school

  1. Prepare your staff. Clue them in on how evaluation is changing so they are not caught unaware. Offer in-person conferencing for written feedback that confuses or intrigues them.
  2. Conduct the second observation quickly. Teachers, like principals, have been around the proverbial block and can smell a short-term initiative a mile away. If you wnat these skills to last, engage in shorter (less than 15-minute) observatinos more often with quickly delivered feedback.
  3. Expect and plan for resistance. Prepare your staff to receive this new kind of feedback. We like the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. These Harvard lawyers offer several important tips of the observed, more than the observers.