Teachers are getting support they need to improve their practices and deepen students’ knowledge and skills
James Ellis, the principal of White Deer Elementary School in New Columbia, Pennsylvania, likes the conversations he and other administrators in his district are having with teachers about what great instruction looks like.
These discussions occur after school leaders observe teachers in action and are designed to provide helpful feedback and guidance on what teachers can do to improve in their jobs, such as by better managing their classrooms or helping students make more progress. The observations are part of Pennsylvania’s new teacher evaluation system, which went into statewide use as a pilot for the first time this year. Under the old system, Ellis said he didn’t have the same deep discussions about what he saw or should have seen.
“In the past it wasn’t unheard of to put the observation [report] in the teachers’ mailboxes for them to sign, and we were done for the year,” Ellis said.
Now, he talks with the teacher before and after the observation and does a less formal, walk-thru or visit again before finalizing an evaluation. That second classroom visit can both reinforce what he saw during the formal observation and provide new insights. “Previously that wasn’t as important to me as the main observation,” said Ellis. “Now, I really try to check back,” he said.
Teachers with fewer than three years of experience are formally observed twice a year; more senior teachers only once. The classroom observations and how a teacher carries out other professional responsibilities count for half the evaluation. The other half is based on student growth data and other measures of learning.
“A Different Atmosphere”
One of the teachers Ellis observed this year was Erin Sheedy, a kindergarten and special education teacher at a neighboring school in the Milton Area School District, north of Harrisburg. Sheedy said she particularly liked the pre-and post-observation discussions she had with Ellis. Administrators like Ellis in the district conduct observations in schools besides their own.
“It’s a different atmosphere to have that kind of one-on-one attention for any teacher,” she said. “The principal used to be the man behind the door, the wizard behind the curtain. Now they’re much more visible, and it’s a conversation.”
In an effort to be inclusive and get a wide array of viewpoints, teachers, union leaders, principals, school district officials, and representatives from the non-profit and business communities were part of a State committee established in 2010 to define the characteristics of good teaching. The committee chose the Danielson Framework for Teaching, which is one of several that States are using as the basis for their evaluations of teachers and principals.
Teachers Welcome the Specific Feedback
Ellis and other administrators attended two-day regional meetings to learn about the Danielson Framework, watched and critiqued mock observations, viewed videos of teachers at work and took part in in-depth discussions about what good teaching looks like with their peers. Ellis said the training helped him become a better, more objective evaluator. He said in the past he would note whether or not all of the students were engaged. “There was some subjectivity,” Ellis said. Now, he has to see something specific for it to make it into his post-observation report. “We try to stay away from language like, ‘It appears everyone is working,’” Ellis said. “Now we might say, ‘Nine out of 10 are working.’”
Michael Freeborn, a first-grade teacher in Turbotville, in central Pennsylvania, said teachers like the specificity.
The administrator who observed him this year “took a lot of notes and wrote down things I said and things I did,” Freeborn said. The administrator’s post-observation feedback reflected the attention to evidence. “It was, ‘You said this, and this is why it was good.’ It was written differently than past evaluations. That aspect of it is very helpful in making everyone accountable.”
“This is a whole paradigm shift for professional staff,” said Cathy Groller, superintendent of the Milton Area School District in central Pennsylvania. She said the training for principals is helping them make that shift toward gathering the concrete evidence and data that paint an accurate picture of how a teacher is doing in the classroom.
Targeted Training for Teachers
The State also created short, illustrative videos and 43 interactive online courses to make sure teachers knew what is expected of them. Those resources are hosted on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Standards Aligned System.
“If we want to see improved student achievement, not only do we need strong accountability systems for teachers and principals but we also need a strong support system that can be sustained over time,” said Rita Perez, Pennsylvania’s acting deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education.
The courses help teachers learn how to ask good questions that encourage critical thinking, get children to engage in high-quality, peer-to-peer conversations, communicate effectively with parents, and meet other expectations of the framework.
Typically, the on-demand courses include a pre-assessment, videos, research materials and completion of a project or a final assessment.
“Every hour that I spent on the courses, I learned something that I could take back to my classroom and implement,” said Marybeth Zlock, a second-grade teacher in State College.
Zlock, who has been teaching for three decades, said she particularly liked lessons on how to facilitate a good classroom discussion and spark student engagement and how to engage the broader community in your classroom. She said that course spurred her to invite Penn State students in to work with the kids on a science project. “It just really makes you think a little more outside the box and takes you out of that routine that some people get stuck in and keeps you moving forward as a teacher.”
Ellis said he began referring teachers to some of the new online tools. He recently met with a teacher who wanted to learn how to do ad hoc formative assessments. A few clicks and the teacher found videos on exactly that topic.
Susan Blyth, the curriculum services coordinator for the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, said she too has found teachers to be interested in the resources around formative assessments. She said some teachers are watching the professional development videos and discussing them with their peers at school. Her office unit organized one such session, but the conversation that followed was entirely teacher-led. “The teachers really talked about what they saw,” she said. “We didn’t do anything to elicit that conversation.”
• Effective training for both teachers and principals, based on the same core ideas but geared to each audience, helps to ensure that their definitions of good teaching are aligned. Principals in Pennsylvania attended such trainings at regional meetings. Teachers receive much of it online.
• Teachers need practical resources they can use to continuously improve practice and address any observed weaknesses.
• Particularly challenging for both principals and teachers is an understanding of what constitutes evidence of effective teaching. Pennsylvania is trying to address this through its in-person training for principals and online training for teachers.
Marybeth Zlock, a second grade teacher at Corl Street Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania
Q. How did the online courses you have taken increase your understanding of the framework’s expectations and improve your performance evaluation?
A. After taking these classes, you really can be distinguished (a high rating). It just takes being more careful about how you think about your classroom and how you think about your kids and their needs and how you think about your students’ parents.
Q. What is your overall opinion of the new way of doing observations?
A. There are many more pieces of that puzzle. What does my room look like? How does it feel inside this classroom? How are my kids engaged? How do they help each other? Are they self-assessing? I feel that it’s a much more thorough way to look at observations.