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Why we need to transform teacher appraisal

A collaborative culture among educators is essential in schools, says Dr Stefani Hite, an experienced professional learning designer who will be speaking about ‘Transforming teacher appraisal into a meaningful professional learning process’ at the IB Global Conference in Vienna in October.  

She shares her thoughts on teacher evaluation and how they impact student achievement.

Please tell us about your conference talk.

For the first time in education, we are more aware than ever of what has the potential to positively influence student achievement. When I speak at the IB Global Conference, I’ll be considering the assumptions we’ve made about what works for students, so that we can become far more intentional about the learning environments and experiences we design. We now know that building collective efficacy in schools has the highest positive impact on students, with the potential to increase their achievement far beyond the typical ‘one year of school, one year of growth’.

Conference participants will get to hear more about a school that decided to examine its traditional supervisory-driven approach to appraising their teaching staff with the goal of creating a new system. Based on the principle of collective efficacy, I worked with them to embark on a journey of co-creation to develop a system with collaboration at its core.

The school is a K-12 IB World School based in Switzerland. It’s an international school with approximately 1,400 students and 200 faculty members. It has three unique campuses, each with its own leadership team. What sets this school apart from others is its desire to think differently about appraisal and to use that approach to build collective efficacy. It’s a great story that other schools can learn and benefit from. We hope to publish a report on the initiative and its impact on student learning in the future.

Why don’t traditional ways of appraising teachers help students to achieve?

In 2009, the Gates Foundation designed and funded The Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative. This was a multi-year effort to dramatically improve student outcomes by increasing students’ access to effective teaching. The approach followed a traditional model of supervisory-driven evaluation of teachers, with the notion that significant calibration for observers along with quantitative scoring protocols was needed to fine-tune the process and thereby increase educator effectiveness.

Almost a decade later, the programme has been thoroughly evaluated and the findings are clear—the traditional approach to evaluating teacher practice and performance had little-to-no effect on student achievement. Importantly, we know that traditional evaluation and appraisal systems typically do not promote teacher collective efficacy; in fact, there is research to suggest that most teachers lack collaborative opportunities, when it comes to appraisal.

What does a ‘collaborative culture’ in a school look like?

Many people mistake collaboration as synonymous with cooperation. There is a distinct difference, however. In a cooperative enterprise, we work efficiently and don’t get in each other’s way. But in a collaborative effort, we respect the diverse thinking of the group, realizing that each member’s contribution improves our end result in a way that wouldn’t have happened if we merely cooperated to ‘get the job done’. Many school cultures are cooperative in nature—and that can easily be mistaken for collaboration. But unless working together amplifies that which could have been done working alone, collaboration isn’t happening.

In a cooperative enterprise, we work efficiently and don’t get in each other’s way. But in a collaborative effort, we respect the diverse thinking of the group, realizing that each member’s contribution improves our end result in a way that wouldn’t have happened if we merely cooperated to ‘get the job done’

There are several conditions that provide us with evidence of true collaboration. For example, do all faculty and staff contribute to decision-making? When staff have input, but no decisional authority, it limits the amount of real collaboration. Another example would be cohesiveness. Do the staff debate and discuss, but then reach amicable compromises? Or is there a fractured value and belief system within the group? When we delve into the conditions that promote collaboration, we can find evidence (or the lack) to determine whether or not a school is truly collaborative.

Why is the philosophy of ‘opening classroom doors’ to let teachers observe each other at work so effective?

Another factor leading to a collaborative culture is evidence that teachers are highly aware of each other’s work. For consistency of values, goals, and practices, faculty must have the time and space to learn together through the complex issues that face educators. This has traditionally been pursued with meetings and traditional workshop ‘sharing’ sessions—but those approaches are limited in that they often don’t have real instruction with real students at their core.

With an ‘open classroom doors’ philosophy, teachers have a variety of opportunities to see each other teach. While sharing each other’s successes and challenges, educators no longer face the complex work of teaching alone. When teachers have the luxury of observing students without the burden of teaching, they become highly reflective about their practices. When educators are provided with regular opportunities to be in each other’s classrooms, they co-learn and co-develop their understandings and approaches, thus amplifying their individual work.

Dr Stefani Hite is a graduate of the American School in London, Tufts University, and the University of Pennsylvania. She has decades of experience in education as a teacher, an administrator, and an international school leader. She now specializes in supporting organizations around systemic change initiatives with a focus on building collective efficacy, design thinking, and participatory leadership. She co-authored Intentional and Targeted Teaching: A Framework for Teacher Leadership and Growth with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey.