Keeping Professional Learning at the Heart of Educator Evaluation: Perspectives From a Rhode Island State Leader

By Lisa Foehr, Director of Educator Quality and Certification, Rhode Island Department of Education, Jun 29, 2017

It seems like nearly every school in every state is implementing a new system that defines educator excellence and evaluates educator performance. Policymakers and local leaders declare their interest not only in determining how an educator performs but also in improving educator performance so students benefit. So, how does a state or a school system make good on guaranteeing that educator evaluations focus on professional learning when national and local conversations so often underscore the accountability aspect?

As director of Educator Quality and Certification at the Rhode Island Department of Education, I have found that certain steps can ensure that professional learning is prioritized in educator evaluation. Step 1 is to clearly set the expectation that professional learning must be a part of the evaluation system. To set this expectation in Rhode Island, we established a set of evaluation system standards as well as performance criteria for meeting the standards. For our educators who work to design an approvable evaluation model to use in their districts, the standards define required components of the system: professional practice, student learning, professional responsibilities, and professional learning. Step 2 is to require that all evaluation models include an embedded professional growth goal using evaluation feedback and school or district initiatives.

Seems easy, right? Simply make sure writing a professional goal is part of your system. Check. Done.

If it were that simple, I could say that Rhode Island had figured it all out. Although we're on our way, we definitely have more work to do. For professional growth goals to be meaningful and result in positive impacts on students, observation data are only a starting place. More important than the observation data is ongoing feedback for educators that is directly connected to their roles, their students, and the specific areas in which they need to improve.

Much has been written lately about the power of high-quality feedback and the difference it can make with professional learning and growth. Eighty-seven percent of teachers and ninety-six percent of administrators who responded to a recent Rhode Island statewide survey reported that teaching practice changed as a result of feedback received from evaluations. We will not achieve the professional growth that educators desire and students deserve without the kind of feedback that results in this kind of professional engagement.

This spring, the Rhode Island Department of Education launched what we call “feedback calibration sessions” designed for leadership teams to examine the feedback they give and identify ways to make it as useful as possible. The feedback calibration sessions:

  • Guide school leaders in considering how high-quality feedback supports instructional growth.
  • Provide an opportunity for participants to examine their own beliefs about feedback.
  • Devote time for school leaders to practice observing teaching, taking notes, and drafting feedback as a group.
  • Provide structured time to analyze actual feedback that school leaders have given to teachers using a review tool.

It’s eye-opening for everyone! We can do so much when we create a culture that thirsts for better feedback and professional conversation targeted at improving student achievement. 

It's not enough for any of us to just give lip service to the inclusion of professional learning. Instead, professional learning must be an intentional element in the design of a larger system. As a state education agency leader, I know from experience that it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the system components and implementation needs. When educators are learning a new system, it feels like a burden to think about high-quality feedback and aligned goals. Yet professional learning must be our compass to guide us in this work.

Educators are committed to students and want to improve for their benefit. The involvement of educators in the design and implementation of new evaluation systems is itself professional learning. But there are additional aspects that must be addressed. How does an evaluation system provide high-quality, actionable feedback? How does the system ensure that professional learning using information from evaluation is embedded for teachers and leaders? How do you know that professional learning is really integrated in day-to-day practice? How do you get others who may focus only on ratings to become partners in insisting that professional learning is a central part of evaluation so all students have access to high-quality educators?

By answering these questions and implementing action plans to ensure the presence of professional learning in all systems, we will be taking a huge step toward meeting the promise of guaranteeing an effective teacher and an effective leader for each and every student.

Now it’s your turn. What responses do you have for these questions? What action steps will help ensure that educator evaluations emphasize professional learning in addition to accountability?

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