When You Don’t Have Enough Evidence

Over the past few years, many states have adopted much more stringent teacher evaluation requirements. We have new rubrics, more required observations, and more complex criteria on which to rate teachers.

Evidence

For principals, the impact is undeniable: The teacher evaluation workload has grown dramatically. What used to be a perfunctory process of filling out a form is now a year-long process of gathering evidence on a huge range of criteria. What used to be a pass/fail process is now a detailed rating process that demands much more evidence.

I think this is a good change, but it’s one we have to handle smartly if we want to avoid being crushed under this new workload.

So I adopted a simple approach: I’m going to gather as much evidence as I can, and the teacher can supply evidence too, but if I don’t have evidence on something, I’m going to assume it’s satisfactory (3 on a 4-point scale).

If I believe a teacher’s performance in a given area is not satisfactory, I should go to the trouble of gathering evidence to back up my assertion. If a teacher believes their practice is exemplary and deserves a 4 out of 4, they should have readily available evidence. If I believe their practice is exemplary, I should have no trouble pulling out a few examples to showcase.

But what if I don’t have enough evidence? Let’s face it: this is often the case.

When it’s time to write the evaluation, we can’t include evidence we don’t have, and we shouldn’t try to mine our observation notes for patterns that aren’t there.

What most certainly should not do is to force ourselves to gather one piece of evidence for every component for every teacher. One piece of evidence may not be nearly enough, or it may be too much.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching has 22 components in 4 domains. If we focus on gathering one piece of evidence for every criterion—an enormous task for a staff of 30 or 40 teachers—what value does that add to the process?

Not much. There’s a word for a lone piece of evidence: anecdotal.

If at the end of the year, we find that we need more evidence to provide a justifiable rating on every criterion, the time to address that problem was months ago, not in our “creative writing” process at the last minute.

If I’m going to give a rating that has a negative impact on a teacher’s self-concept or employment situation, I want to have at least three specific pieces of evidence that I’ve documented in writing. I want dates and times, and I want to be sure anyone who reads the evaluation (the teacher, my boss, the union, human resources, a hearing judge) will agree with me.

This means I have to be in classrooms much more often than the evaluation process requires. Two formal observations won’t generate the kind of evidence I need.

We need to be in classrooms virtually every day, for more than a few minutes, to know as much as we need to know about the teaching and learning taking place in our classrooms.

We need to take good notes, gather good evidence, and most importantly, talk with teachers about their teaching and with students about their learning.

If we’re smart about our evidence-gathering, we can be more effective as instructional leaders and write evaluations that we can stand behind. 

ELR12: Jason DeRoner on Teacher Observation Tools

Eduleadership RadioIn this episode of Eduleadership Radio, Jason DeRoner, CEO of TeachBoost, joins me to discuss the impact good software can have on school leaders’ ability to provide high-quality feedback.

Let me be blunt: Most apps made specifically for principals are junk, because the developers either aren’t very good, or they don’t understand the work of principals, or both. When I tried TeachBoost, I realized something was different, and I knew I had to talk to the person behind it.

Jason DeRoner photoI had a great time talking with Jason because he deeply understands instructional supervision, and TeachBoost has developed an amazing web-based app that works on a laptop, iPad, smartphone, or just about any other web-enabled device to help principals collect great information in walkthroughs or formal observations.

TeachBoost isn’t cheap, but they do have a free plan that’s worth checking out. You can create a free account here.

In our discussion, Jason and I talk about what school leaders need from their software in order for it to make a positive difference in their work without getting in the way. Whether or not you’re interested in a particular tool, I hope you find this discussion helpful to your thinking about instructional supervision and the way you provide feedback to teachers to support their growth.

Listen Now:

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Every Classroom, Every Day

Yesterday was my first day back at school after Thanksgiving break, and I made a point of visiting every classroom briefly.

I’ve attempted to do this before – often at times I feel the need to reconnect with students and staff – but have wondered about the value of simply visiting, and not staying to provide feedback. However, I find that visiting every classroom greatly increases the odds that I’ll see something interesting that I can stay and provide feedback on.

To make sure that I get to every room, I set up a single-action list in OmniFocus of all teachers, and set this as a recurring project that starts again the next day each time I complete it:
Inspector settings for OmniFocus

I can then check off each classroom on my iPad as I visit.

You could of course do the same thing with a paper checklist each day, but this is a bit more automated and fits the system I already use.

How do you manage your classroom visits and time being present around the school?

Using the iPad for Paperless Walkthroughs

I’ve been trying a few different methods for doing walkthroughs and giving feedback to teachers using my iPad. I used a paper log and paper notes for feedback in previous years, but now that I have an iPad, it’s time to go paperless. I’ve tried a few different solutions for organizing walkthroughs and giving feedback via iPad, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Trial and Error
Chris Lehmann developed a great form using Google Spreadsheets, which I tried and found very easy to use (for entering feedback, at least). You create a form and enter information into the form, and the results are added to a Google Spreadsheet. The drawbacks are that you need constant internet access (wifi or 3G), and the spreadsheet format doesn’t lend itself to communicating feedback to teachers (though Chris has a partial solution to this in asking teachers to sign up to receive notifications when their spreadsheet is updated). I like using the form, but not the spreadsheet.

I’ve also tried using OmniFocus to keep track of both whom I need to visit and what feedback I provided. OmniFocus is a great task management app, and I rely on it to keep track of my to-dos, but I’ve found it’s not great for holding large amounts of text. You can type a note into a task, and even email it, but the resulting email is oddly formatted (so that the recipient, if also an OmniFocus user, can add the task to their to-do list), and adding lots of text can slow down your database loading and synching.

Hitting My Stride
However, OmniFocus shines when it comes to keeping track of whom you’ve visited. You can set recurring tasks, re-order them, and set reminders. Today I made a list of all the teachers in my school, and when I visit a teacher’s room and give feedback, I drag that teacher’s name to the bottom of the list so I know I’ll get to everyone. When it’s time to pick a room to visit, I look at my list and see who’s at the top.

Evernote

So far, I’ve found Evernote to be the best app for taking notes and emailing feedback. I already use Evernote as my virtual file cabinet, so it’s easy to use it for this additional purpose. I take notes in Evernote (starting a new note for each classroom visit), then email them to the teacher directly from Evernote. Evernote works even if you’re offline, so you can take notes even if you’re out of wifi range, and they’ll send/sync when you’re back online. To make it easy to find all the notes for a particular teacher, I add two tags to each note: the word “feedback,” and the teacher’s name. A bonus is that Evernote syncs via Evernote’s servers, so your notes are always backed up and accessible from your computer.

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard

One more essential tool: the Bluetooth keyboard. This $69 accessory almost turns the iPad into a laptop, but with 12 hours of battery life and half the bulk of even the smallest netbook. The keyboard multiplies my typing speed tenfold, and makes it viable to give substantive feedback directly from the classroom.

Workflow that Works
Using these tools, here’s the workflow I’ve developed: Whenever I can get into classrooms, I visit the room at the top of my list (in OmniFocus), take notes in Evernote, email them to the teacher, and move the teacher’s name to the bottom of my list in OmniFocus (I can also add the date to the note field in OmniFocus so I can quickly see all the dates I’ve visited the room).

So far this year, my schedule has been unpredictable enough that I haven’t scheduled informal walkthroughs, but if you can consistently make time, it’s OK to put them on your calendar. I would caution you to avoid using your calendar to motivate yourself, and have a way to ensure that, even if you miss a planned visit, you’ll still get to every classroom without too much reworking of your schedule. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend adding specific classes to visit to your calendar at specific times, because if you get interrupted and can’t make it to the class, you won’t want to completely redo your schedule. That’s why I keep an ordered list of classes to visit in OmniFocus, and just move each class to the bottom of the list when I visit.

I prefer to send feedback via email in most cases (since teachers can respond at their leisure if necessary), but some feedback is best given in person. If your walkthrough leads you to the conclusion that a personal conversation is in order, you can email the teacher from your iPad to set up the meeting, and put the meeting on your iPad’s calendar.

If you’ve been thinking of getting an iPad but have questions, please ask in the comments. See also my Essential iPad Guide for Principals.

How do you give feedback when you do walkthroughs?

Cross-posted from LeaderTalk at Education Week

Focusing on The Right Work

Cross-posted from EdWeek’s LeaderTalk

Yesterday I spent the day at another elementary school in my district as part of our district’s Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for principals. The five of us spent the morning identifying a problem of practice and visiting classrooms, and spent the afternoon debriefing and identifying implications for our work.

It’s always stimulating to talk with other principals and learn how they lead their schools. I got great ideas for what I could do in my school.

At the end of the day, though, I was exhausted by possibility. There is so much I could be doing, and so much I’m not doing, yet I don’t seem to have much room to add more to my plate.

This leads to a painful question: Am I doing the right work?

I always stay busy, but is it with the right things? Should I be ignoring some of what I’m currently paying attention to, in order to focus on something else? How can I decide?

One obvious way to decide what to focus on is to listen to others. What issues are urgent to teachers, parents, students?

The problem with allowing the squeaky wheel to get the grease, though, is that it’s not always the right wheel. Perhaps the issues that are coming up are not really the most important.

Learning from my peers (other elementary principals) forces me to ask the question “What am I not addressing in my school?” If an issue will require uncomfortable discussion or serious change, perhaps no one will bring it up. Perhaps it’s up to me.

Part of a leader’s job is to create and uphold a vision for the organization. This means speaking boldly, bringing up the important issues that we might not otherwise face, and making sure they get the attention they deserve.

How do you decide what deserves your time and attention? How you identify the “right” work?

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