TESS has no meat on her bones

There are structural and cultural problems with the Arkansas Department of Education’s newish Teacher Excellence and Support System (TESS), the system by which teachers are evaluated. TESS is not really going to change anything.

TESS is based on Charlotte Danielson’s “The Framework for Teaching” which attempts to break teaching down into a bunch of separate components that can be assessed by evaluators, i.e. school principals.TESS replaces “some type of checklist” that most Arkansas districts were using with a purportedly clear but pretty complicated rubric. As far as I know, all Arkansas principals and teachers have received training and a copy of Danielson’s book. I don’t have any major problems with the book or the rubric. Really, I thought they were okay, with some reservations.

But student learning is going to be improved by giving everybody a new rubric? Really?

The main structural problem with TESS is that it doesn’t fundamentally change who does what, and how they go about it. Teachers are evaluated by principals. Principals have an interest in making sure their school is orderly, their “customers” are happy, and that the school appears successful (School Report Cards and word-of-mouth). Principals are busy. They deal with lots of phone calls, hundreds of emails, cantankerous students, parents, and staff. It’s not a job I would want.Principals evaluate classrooms to make sure the teacher has established procedures, the students are compliant and understand their roles, and that the education process appears to be moving at a reasonable pace for the level of the students. Principals rarely have an interest in the depth of learning that goes on in the classroom. It’s not their fault. As I said, they are very busy. And the chances that they come into a particular teacher’s classroom up to speed on the content depend on what they taught and how long ago they taught it. Principals are likely not even the person who should be evaluating this area of learning. I teach physics. I have never had a principal evaluate me who wanted to discuss the details of how students learn physics content. Twenty-plus years of teaching and a principal has never discussed with me how students learn the content. The depth of student understanding is the important part. This is the part that bears deep thought and consideration. Not whether or not students know how they are supposed to ask to go to the bathroom. Okay, so I’ve never been particularly great at the rules and procedures part of teaching. And I concede that it makes everyone’s life easier when the rules and procedures run smoothly. But the impact on depth of understanding? Not so sure. This is a cultural problem. If the classroom appears orderly and students “engaged,” then the culture assumes that learning is happening. But deep learning is a tricky thing. I think all of us who went to school can relate to forgetting everything you studied immediately after the test. That is not the kind of learning I am after. Deep learning requires thought on the part of the teacher. This is where another viewpoint would be helpful.

Another structural problem is the “classroom cul-de-sac.” Teachers have no way to move up without getting out. Teaching is teaching whether it’s your fifth year or your thirtieth year. The only promotion is to become an administrator, and then you are no longer a teacher. Teaching can be a lot of fun, and a lot of us don’t want to give up that part. After a few years of teaching, if you’ve worked your way into an assignment that you like and a nice classroom, that is probably where you will be at retirement (caught in that cul-de-sac).

Assuming you are deemed competent, there are no institutional incentives for improvement in teaching skills, monetary or other (is this structural, cultural, or both?). There are personal incentives, of course, and many teachers work hard to improve even after long years of teaching, for no reason other than to gain greater job satisfaction. But teachers generally don’t get paid more or recognized in any way for doing a better job.  Sure, teachers are rated by principals, but those evaluations are private, don’t impact salary and promotions, and rarely result in a concerted, cooperative effort to improve a teacher’s skills, particularly if that teacher is already a veteran teacher.

Teachers should evaluate each other. Peer evaluation could accomplish at least two things: 1. Teachers would  be more likely to get direct, practical feedback on their lessons. 2. Instead of having the same job for an entire career, experienced teachers would encounter new challenges and feel that their expertise was benefitting greater numbers of students.

A couple of experienced teachers in each department /school could be given an extra planning period and designated evaluators, They could do the grunt work of evaluating their colleagues, and a principal could review their work and sign off on it. Certainly the principal could observe and evaluate the team themselves, as well. At least one of the teacher/evaluators should teach the same or a closely-related subject.Better if both did. The evaluation could be a collaborative process, focused on student learning. Ideally, it would be something like the Japanese education system’s Lesson Study. In a lesson study, groups of teachers watch each other teach the same subject in different ways. The group collaboratively develops a lesson that helps students understand a complex topic. Evaluators and evaluated could grow together and improve instruction, so that students develop the deep understanding of a subject that leads to success. And an evaluation instrument exists that could help teachers evaluate each other. It’s called the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol. It’s not a replacement for TESS as an all-around evaluation, but it does look at whether what goes on in a classroom has the characteristics that have been shown to get students thinking more deeply.

Here’s another take on Danielson’s evaluation system.


About marcreif

I live and teach high school physics in the town I was born in, Fayetteville, Arkansas. My professional interests include modeling instruction and Advanced Placement courses. I also work as a College Board Workshop Consultant, which means I lead Pre-AP and AP Science Teacher workshops. Lately I've also been leading a fair amount of student review sessions for the National Math and Science Initiative. I have a website for students (fysicsfool.info) and another for AP Summer Institute participants (apsifool.info). I tweet infrequently (@marcreif).
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