Powering the Global Education Conversation: About edCircuit

Are We Evaluating the Right Things in Schools?

The following interview with Dr. Stephen Fink first appeared on Dr. Berger’s “Down the Hall” column on Scholastic Administrator.

Dr. Stephen Fink is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), and affiliate associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education.Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

Dr. Berger: Schools across the country are beginning to experience teacher evaluations as part-and-parcel to their daily work. We have seen systems connect results to professional development plans and new support offerings. What, in your estimation, is the next data variable to be linked to teacher effectiveness outcomes and could one assume licensure would be the next in-line?

Dr. Stephen Fink: Licensure could be next in-line but I will speak more to that in a moment. I think more important than looking for the next data variable, we need to solidify the current work around teacher evaluation. And there is so much to solidify on that front. While most states have adopted new teacher evaluation instruments, the ability of principals to use those instruments with fidelity is mixed at best. Furthermore, even assuming principals can use the instruments to accurately assess a teacher’s performance, there is a long way to go to actually helping teachers grow their instructional practice. The evaluation instruments – no matter how good – cannot cause improvement. 

After helping principals calibrate on the adopted teacher evaluation instrument, we at the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) focus much of our time helping them learn how to engage teachers in cycles of inquiry in order to use the evaluation instrument as a lever for actual improvement. We also help principals learn how to give targeted feedback to teachers as well as use data from their observations to orchestrate professional learning opportunities for teachers.

To complicate this further, we work with principals on their own subject matter content understanding since it’s in the context of content that one can help teachers actually improve practice. The evaluation frameworks are content neutral, so in order to help teachers in an authentic way, principals need to marry the content professional development that teachers may be getting to the specifics of the evaluation and/or instructional framework in use. This is still nascent work across the country. Frankly in many districts this type of work isn’t even occurring, so I would start there before looking for the next data variable.

DB: Let’s continue on the subject of teacher licensure. How should we look at state licensure systems in 2015 and in what areas do we need a reboot and/or update given the trajectory of the teaching profession?

I think state licensure has been a poor proxy for performance – both at the teacher and administrative level. My approach may be seen as somewhat radical but I would propose doing away with state licensure altogether except maybe for criminal background checks just to ensure due diligence. Rather than exercising licensing control, I suggest that States invest in robust data dashboards that over time measure teacher and administrator performance on a range of agreed-upon metrics with links to their preparation program of choice.

Frankly it doesn’t matter to me who prepares teachers and administrators as long as they can ensure those educators leave the program with specific competencies that matter most for improving student learning and that can be measured. While the transition to this kind of system would be muddy for a period of time, eventually the availability of transparent performance data would allow market forces to reward high-performing preparation programs while weeding out the poor performers. In essence our school districts will need to become much smarter consumers. This seems like a much better role for states to assume than the traditional role of licensure.

DB: In your estimation are we, in general, doing an adequate job of illustrating the career ladder for incoming teachers to ensure that they see a future path for their professional participation and if not, how can we better detail what the position entails, how to improve and advance?

SF: No, we are not illustrating that ladder very well, mostly because we haven’t conceptualized what that ladder could or would look like. In fact, I was just in a conversation with a group of leaders of various national organizations and we were discussing teacher leadership specifically. It’s an area that is rightfully receiving more attention, not the least of which, in the form of an initiative from the Department of Education. We need to conceptualize what it means for all teachers to assume leadership work and then create nested opportunities for specific role development for those who are interested in more formal leadership roles. But before we put the horse before the cart, I suggest that we first invest in creating school cultures where every teacher is expected to assume leadership work in the school.

DB: What role do decision makers (i.e. district and building-based leaders) have in the management of teacher development and how can we improve communications between parties to lessen the rhetoric while infusing a message of both professional rigor and support?

SF: This is a much bigger topic than time and space allows but it should suffice to say that the primary work of district and school leaders is the improvement of teaching practice. This means that leaders must be working everyday to enable and support teacher growth. And it means that all policies and practices must be aligned to focus on growth as a means to accountability versus focusing solely on accountability. This is the epicenter of our work at the Center for Educational Leadership, whether we are working with teachers, school leaders or district leaders.

DB: Who is leading the charge on leader effectiveness from a state or district standpoint and who’s number 2? 

SF: I really can’t say which state is leading the charge on leader effectiveness.  I suspect that there are a number of initiatives either in process or in development although I don’t have my fingers broadly on that pulse.  That said, I would certainly look at Florida since I know that the deputy commissioner, Brian Dassler, has been quite a champion of leadership development.  In fact we are working with Brian and his team to provide an instructional leadership program to approximately 150 school leaders across Florida.

In terms of school districts, a good starting place would be to look at those districts that were funded by the Wallace Foundation’s recent principal supervisor initiative.  I know that the Wallace Foundation carefully vetted the districts based on pre-established criteria.  In addition the districts that have been participating in the Wallace Foundation Principal Pipeline Initiative have also demonstrated a commitment to leadership development.

DB: What has been the biggest lesson we have all learned with the teacher effectiveness efforts across the country?

SF: Well I suppose there are lots of lessons but for us at CEL the lesson continues to be that we cannot have teacher effectiveness without leader effectiveness. We must simultaneously invest in and provide comprehensive support to both leaders and teachers in order to improve outcomes for all students.

Read more interviews on Scholastic’s Down the Hall column.


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