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Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development
Teacher Evaluation and Professional Development

Carolyn Kelley
Carolyn Kelley

November 2005

Schools across the U.S. struggle to address critical learning gaps, and to identify ways to improve the quality of teaching for all students. Teacher evaluation, part of the process, plays an important role in teacher selection and induction.

But evaluation rarely appears to advance learning for senior teachers, according to research by UW-Madison education professor Carolyn Kelley and graduate student Victoria Maslow. In many schools, evaluations are haphazard and framed by the principal's cognitive lens, rather than by student learning needs or by any particular evaluation instrument.

Teacher evaluation systems ideally should foster improvements in both professional development opportunities and teaching practice. But evaluations may present an inaccurate view of teacher performance, especially with respect to standards-based instruction. Conditions that compromise the ability of evaluation to enhance teaching practice include:

  1. Limitations in supervisor competence;
  2. Inadequate time for observation and feedback;
  3. Lack of teacher/administrator understanding and acceptance;
  4. Narrow conceptions of teaching;
  5. Lack of clarity about evaluation criteria;
  6. Classroom observations that are subject to evaluator preferences;
  7. Conflicts between the roles of evaluator as instructional leader and as staff supervisor; and
  8. Principals' lack of content-specific knowledge, resulting in evaluation feedback that focuses on general behaviors, such as delivery, rather than on content-specific pedagogy.

Given such limitations, how could evaluation advance teaching practice, particularly for experienced teachers? One avenue that has not been well explored is using evaluation data on all teachers to inform whole-school improvement efforts, such as targeting professional development to groups of teachers and focusing on system reform and capacity building.

Kelley and Maslow examined evaluation and feedback practices in seven diverse, medium- to large-size high schools, with particular emphasis on the role that evaluation played in:

  • Providing feedback to individual teachers to foster improvements in teaching practice;
  • Informing improvements in the organization as a system; and
  • Reinforcing or reducing inequitable distributions of high-quality teachers across students of varying abilities.

They also examined how the schools used evaluation to refine or reframe (and fundamentally reform) teaching practice, at individual and organizational levels.

Kelley and Maslow interviewed teachers, evaluators, administrators, and department chairs, collecting information about each school's diversity, structure, performance, and evaluation system. They then grouped the effects of evaluation practice by geographic location and level of diversity: urban-suburban and most racially diverse; urban-suburban with moderate racial diversity; and rural with moderate socioeconomic and racial diversity.

They found that, across the schools, evaluation had limited utility as direct feedback to advance teacher learning. Instead, it was used to create structured opportunities for feedback, professional conversation, and teacher learning or to provide a source of data to focus structured professional development opportunities for teachers.

Evaluation and teacher feedback varied dramatically across the seven schools. In many ways, understanding the evaluation and feedback systems provided an important window on the "real" goals being pursued by these schools and the ways in which the schools dealt with—or ignored—significant educational challenges created by diversity in a strong accountability context.

Of particular interest was the extent to which the evaluation system provided meaningful feedback for teacher learning beyond the probationary period. Almost universally, teacher learning did not occur for experienced teachers through the feedback they received through the evaluation system. The system did provide a sense of accountability, however, and when teachers were not evaluated, they complained in some cases that there should be some accountability.

Evaluation can be useful if meaningful data are collected. Systematic attention to evaluation and review of evaluation data occurred in one school of the seven studied—the only case in which teachers identified school or district professional development as a primary resource for professional learning. In several schools—particularly in large, diverse, urban high schools—evaluation focused on problem teachers.

Most teachers identified students as the primary source of feedback, and colleagues as secondary. Only in two of the seven schools did teachers indicate that professional development was an important source of teacher learning.

The Kelley and Maslow study suggests a need for continued examination of the human resource management of high school teachers and ways that feedback mechanisms can advance teacher learning, especially for experienced teachers.

From a paper presented at the 2005 conference of the American Educational Research Association, "The Effects of Teacher Evaluation on Equity and System Change in Large, Diverse High Schools."