Hint: It’s not good enough just to check the boxes

New Jersey’s new teacher evaluation system can serve as a case study for principals across the country who are interested in what’s really important to their faculty in terms of performance appraisal.

One thing’s clear from data collected from interviews with New Jersey teachers in regard to that law: Teachers want meaningful instructional feedback that goes beyond merely “checking the boxes” of their district’s locally adopted evaluation instrument.

Based on that data, we have identified strategies to help avoid the pitfalls associated with the use of evaluation rubrics as the exclusive blueprint for driving teacher feedback. We suggest that the standards identified in these instruments, when broadly used as a lens to view, discuss, and articulate quality instruction, may serve as a platform for capacity building—not only for teachers, but also for secondary school principals.

Reinventing Teacher Evaluation

First, let’s put the teacher evaluation issue in a historical context. An increasing number of state legislatures are adopting policies that require the use of highly structured and systematic teacher evaluation systems. In 2012, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) led the charge by signing legislation called TEACHNJ, which reformed the process of teaching and maintaining tenure for all New Jersey teachers. Under the statute, school districts are required to create new or adopt preapproved teacher evaluation rubrics to assist in identifying teacher behaviors that are aligned to standards of effective practice. The majority of districts in New Jersey have adopted preapproved teacher evaluation models and their accompanying rubrics.

New Jersey’s Teachers Speak

In the summer of 2015, we conducted an inquiry into the experiences of veteran educators practicing under New Jersey’s new tenure reform legislation. We discovered that some teachers place a low value on the quality of feedback that they receive from their principals and supervisors who are using the new instruments. This may point to the misuse of these instruments. Here is a glimpse of the research we gathered:

#1. Trisha: An experienced inclusion teacher, she compares more openended evaluation processes of the past with the new standards-based system of observation that is currently in place at her district. “I think it’s happening a lot more now [referring to conversations with principals/supervisors], the checklist. I think in the past we would have a lot more general conversation about what’s going on in our classroom. But now it’s more [of] a checklist.” Implicit in Trisha’s words is the desire to have conversations that go beyond the evaluation rubric, what she refers to as “the checklist” in her narrative.

#2. Sara: An experienced teacher of special education, she shared her experiences from a postconference. “I’ll read the generic checklist [referring to an evaluation], and I’ll go ask deeper questions. I’ll be like, ‘What did you mean by this? Can you give me an example?’ There have been times that I’ve noticed that they don’t have an example to give. They were just like kinda checking the box. … Well, that won’t help me much.” Again, we see a reference to a checklist. In this case, Sara is explicitly asking for instructional leadership but expresses that she is not receiving it.

#3. Sam: An experienced middle school science teacher, he implies that the instruments used to evaluate teachers in his district are being used only to capture specific performances and are somewhat shallow indicators of quality practice. “I just feel like all this stuff is there [referring to standards and indicators on the evaluation rubric] so it’s easier for the administrator to walk in and go, ‘All right, I see this, I see that … move on,’ instead of sitting there and trying to figure out: ‘Wow, what is this guy really trying to do? How is he really operating with these kids? This is different from other people, but the kids are buying into it. The kids are really into this right now,’ versus ‘I don’t see a learning goal. I don’t know if this is a good class.'”

Imbued in Sam’s narrative is his longing for observers to stray away from looking at only those indicators aligned to the rubric and instead adopt a more holistic view of instruction that takes into account the teacher’s authentic approach.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Reinventing teacher evaluation and aligning it with quantifiable standards may be creating tension among teachers as they attempt to measure their own notion of quality practice against this new pedagogical yardstick. As a result, we’re proposing the following based on our own practice.

Don’t Just Check Boxes

Scripting a lesson by using lowinference observation strategies may be key in providing meaningful feedback and may prevent teachers from feeling as if the evaluator is going through a checklist. When an evaluator can directly quote a teacher or provide evidence that an action they took—be it as little as an expression or gesture—directly impacted a student at either an emotional or intellectual level, the teacher feels as if their authentic practices are acknowledged. Find a space to acknowledge quality practices that fall outside the rubric. Leaving the rubric behind may actually enhance your ability to “see” quality practice.

Be Cognizant of the Paradigm Shift

For decades, teachers have placed value on acquiring a large array of teaching strategies from which to draw upon in their practice. Using the right tool, at the precise time, in the correct context, was a coveted aspect of the art of teaching. Many educators champion the notion of exercising a broad variety of authentic and unscripted strategies in the classroom. Principals and supervisors must resist the pressure to narrow their focus on scripted behaviors and performances and must be willing to broaden their own view of effective practice through embracing the idea that there are multiple paths that may lead to the same quality outcome.

Listen as Much as You Talk

Postobservation conferences provide an opportune time to broaden your own capabilities and define yourself as an instructional leader. Conversely, if leading by the script, you might reduce yourself to a manager in the eyes of the teacher. To provide an example: The manager might use a rubric in a punitive manner for a teacher who fails to adhere to a prescribed ritual such as referencing a learning objective during a lesson. Such an approach suggests to the teacher that there is only one acceptable performance or ritual worthy of demonstrating this component of quality practice. There is no reliance on a deeper understanding of instruction on the part of the evaluator. In contrast, the approach taken by an instructional leader might function to articulate a shared vision for quality practice. The instructional leader might say: 

“Can you describe how you formatively assessed each of your students throughout the period, and how they assessed themselves, as they progressed toward the day’s learning objectives?”

This approach embraces the postconference protocol as an opportunity for mutual capacity building. It implies that the evaluator is willing to negotiate the acceptance of multiple strategies that may lead to the same favorable outcome.

Gary D. Scavette, EdD, is a supervisor at Woodbury City Public Schools, in Woodbury, NJ. Ane Turner Johnson, PhD, is an associate professor of educational leadership in the College of Education at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ.