Fine Print: Teacher evaluation in the COVID era

State releases latest guidance on how teachers will be evaluated, including those working online only
Credit: (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
File photo: Online class

What it is: The state Department of Education this week provided the latest guidance for districts on how to evaluate their teachers amid the unusual circumstances of the 2020-2021 school year.

What it means: Much of the process will stay the same for those teachers working in the classroom, including those working under a hybrid model. Traditional classroom observations will be required, and formal conferences held between supervisor and teacher.

But those teaching all remotely will not necessarily be graded on an observation of their online instruction, but through a portfolio process where they show evidence and artifacts of their work.

No test scores (this year): The state announced earlier this summer that student test scores and a progress measure used by the state would not be included in a teacher’s evaluation for this school year.

Five themes: The department is emphasizing themes that will be required in districts’ evaluation systems.

  • In-person observations are still key: The evaluation system still relies mostly on a supervisor’s observation of a teacher in the classroom, a process with a host of existing requirements on how they are conducted and the follow-up conferences that come out of them;
  • “Student Growth Objectives”: So-called SGOs remain a central piece of evaluations, where teachers are held to preset goals for students and other classroom performance that go beyond test scores;
  • Training: Training of teachers and supervisors to the adapted evaluation system will be critical;
  • Active dialogue with educators: The involvement of educators in devising each district’s system has been a core aim, and that would continue as districts adjust their plans;
  • Clear expectations: The system’s accountability measures remain in place for teachers with subpar evaluations, including improvement and “corrective action” plans.

Observations: The principal’s or other supervisor’s in-class observation of a teacher, whether lasting a few minutes or a whole 40-minute period, has been the staple of teacher evaluation for generations. The department does not want that to change, even under these circumstances: ”Districts should make every effort to ensure that at least one observation is an in-class observation of in-person instruction within the 2020-21 school year.”

The new guidance does streamline the observations process, providing recommendations on what they should focus on and also minimizing paperwork or other requirements. “Develop observation schedules with the upcoming year’s uncertainty in mind,” the guidance states.

Portfolios: The portfolio process is not new to teacher evaluations, affording an opportunity for educators to show their talents in tangible forms, whether it be student work, a video of a lesson, or any other evidence. But while once an add-on, the new rules will rely on it for what will likely be thousands of teachers not available for in-class instruction, as more and more districts move to all-remote learning.

The portfolio evaluation will effectively replace what is a 20-minute in-person observation, albeit with work over several weeks. “This process allows educators to showcase their professional practice with a set of artifacts, stretched out over a window of time (defined as a period of two to three weeks up to two months).”

Teachers are advised to not overdo it. “Educators gather artifacts of their work completed during the observation window which are aligned to [stated objectives],” the guidance states. “This is not meant to be a large portfolio.”

The end result: Since the state’s teacher evaluation system was remade under former Gov. Chris Christie with the aim of toughening the standards, there has been limited change in the bottom-line numbers of which teachers are deemed “effective” or not.

Over the last several years, more than 95% of teachers had hit that minimum mark. Nonetheless, the department is stressing the importance of the system’s emphasis on dialogue between supervisors and teachers — especially now.

“As districts review their evaluation systems, teachers and school leaders must engage in reflective conversations and work together to implement procedures that will continue to improve teaching and learning,” the guidance reads.