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Formative Feedback to Teachers before #Evaluation!

April 28, 2015

Quote for Blog.002

 

I came across this quote in some readings recently.  The quote is not attributed to any one person.  Nevertheless, it struck me as the central part of what has been on my mind recently when it comes to thinking about teacher feedback and evaluations.  Shelley Anderson, in her article entitled, Improving Teaching One Conversation at a Time, is the last place I saw the quote referenced (page 32).

In her article, she suggests that the reasons why school leaders largely shy away from “meaningful two-way exchanges” with teachers through their evaluation process are:

  1. Time constraints
  2. Fear of the unknown

School leaders don’t carve out quality time to engage with teachers in professional conversations about teaching practice.  Consequently, teachers do not feel like real professionals.  Also, school leaders often don’t feel fully qualified to engage in professional conversations about teaching practice because they are afraid of showing their lack of knowledge in certain areas of teaching.  As a result, the feedback teachers receive is generally vague, overly general, and not focused on professional learning.

A challenge we face is moving away from a model of teacher as performer to a model that views the teacher as a professional.

Changing our mental image of teachers as “classroom performers” to seeing them as adult learners might help us think differently about supporting their professional development.  Our educational systems are generally set up to give teachers feedback as a part of their summative evaluation.  Principals observe teachers as part of an evaluation system, scoring or rating them in predefined domains with a large number of performance indicators meant to represent “good teaching.”  In the evaluation systems I have studied, there are too many domains for any one person to master.  Another way of saying it, the evaluation systems are overly complicated for what they are supposed to achieve.  In these systems, do we look at teachers as learners who are capable of building on their foundation if we provide effective guidance?  Maybe yes, but mostly likely not.  My experience is that we tend to look at them as performers on a stage that need a rating or review to affirm whether their performance meets our expectations.  

Most systems are structured for faculty to receive feedback after a school leader visits their classroom for a few short observations (maybe 20 minutes total) and maybe one longer observation (maybe another 20-30 minutes).  A conversation or two then leads to a summative report which is supposed to tell the teacher how well they perform over the school year which contains more like 9,000 minutes of teaching time.  As a school leader I have seen this person teach about 1% of their teaching time.  Imagine giving a definitive review of a Broadway play after seeing only 1% of the performance time, which amounts to watching the play for about one minute.  It would likely translate to an uninformed review of the play.  Most teacher evaluations represent an uninformed understanding of the totality of a teacher’s capabilities.  In addition, the narrow understanding of what a teacher can and cannot do in the classroom does not provide a school leader with sufficient information to help the teacher plan professional growth.

In a recent article in Educational Leadership, written by Susan Brookhart and Connie Moss, entitled, How to Give Professional Feedback, the authors lay out the case for formative feedback.  They write,

Our focus is on collegial feedback to teachers in formative situations, meaning situations in which teachers are trying to grow and learn, not situations in which teachers are being evaluated to provide a score for a teacher evaluation system. (page 24)

Formative feedback as defined by the authors occurs regularly, maybe daily and certainly weekly. I assume they would say that feedback in an evaluation system that is labeled “formative” is misusing the agreed upon definition of formative feedback.  In Georgia’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES), the “formative feedback” is based on principal observations or walkthroughs totally less than 60 minutes of observation over four months.  Again, this is roughly 1% of the time a teacher works with students.  The TKES manual defines the formative process this way:

As evaluators conduct observations in a teacher’s classroom, they continually build a portrait of that teacher’s approach to and implementation of instructional practices. Over time, these observations should demonstrate the consistency of a teacher’s performance. Although many practices and instructional strategies should be directly observed both in the walkthroughs and in the formative observation, other information can and should be considered in the ratings for the formative assessment. (page 16)

So in this system, the feedback is collected as part of a proces of rating the teacher.  In the eyes of the teacher can this feedback truly be formative?

Brookhart and Moss believe that for feedback to be effective it has to be given through three lens: a micro view; a snapshot view; and the long view.  In the micro view the following characteristics are important to keep in mind. 

  • Is the feedback descriptive?
  • Is the feedback timely?
  • Does the feedback focus on the right amount of information?
  • Does the feedback compare the work to criteria?
  • Does the feedback focus on the work or the process?
  • Is the feedback positive and clear?
  • Is the feedback specific, but not overly specific?
  • Is the tone of the feedback collegial? 

In their view, all of these questions need to be addressed by school leaders if they intend for their feedback to be received with openness, instructive and meaningful, and used to initiate learning.  They write:

The teacher should have a clear sense of what to try next. 

In concluding their article they write:

What makes feedback collegial is dialogue in the context of a relationship, that, ideally, isn’t broken down into the separate roles of “supervisor” and “employee,” but instead involves joint work in the service of student learning.

For feedback to be effective is must be “feed-forward feedback.”  That is, it must be feedback that helps a person grow.  In addition, teachers will see the feedback as effective if they witness the school leader growing through the process.  That’s the joint work Brookhart and Moss are referring to.

As Carolyn O’Hara writes in her Harvard Business Review article, How to Get the Feedback You Need:

You need feedback to grow.

She references work done by Ed Batista from Stanford Graduate School of Business.  His work suggests that people who regularly solicit feedback, even  when negative, are less likely to succumb to the stressful side effects of receiving feedback.  

People who go out and solidit negative feedback–meaning they aren’t just fishing for compliments–report higher satisfaction.  They adapt more quickly to new roles, get higher performance reviews, and show others they are committed to doing their jobs.

Her advice that leads to making feedback work is:

  • Understand what you are looking for
  • Ask for feedback in real time
  • Pose specific questions
  • Press for examples
  • Get a diversity of opinions by turning to colleagues and other trusted people for feedback

In schools, we need to create a safe learning environment for teachers in which they are free to solicit feedback about their teaching.  The feedback shouldn’t just come from evaluation systems designed to rate their performance.  This feedback should be able to come from peers, coaches, and school leaders.  It should be feedback that “feeds forward,” that helps them grow or fulfills the goals they have for their practice.  A safe learning environment implies they are able to take risks, failing and learning from them as they strive to improve.  The feedback is coming along the entire journey of trying, failing, learning, and succeeding.

We all need feedback to improve. 

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