Blind Appraisal

Posted by Aliza Sarian, Sep 12, 2013 3 comments

AlizaSarianHeadshot Aliza Sarian

What if your child (or a friend’s child) was told that because his music teacher doesn’t have a way to conclusively assess the way he plays the French horn, his seat in the orchestra would be determined on how high he scored on his spelling test?  How could you explain to him his value as a musician?

As a theatre teacher in a New York City public school, I’ve been told I have a unique perspective on the arts’ role in education.  What I consider to be the day-to-day of my job—making connections for my students, finding meaningful ways to grade their work objectively and articulate the significance of those grades to their parents, and finding ways to sneak performance and storytelling into other subject areas—other arts education professionals tell me is what makes my voice one worthy of a blog post on evaluation and assessment.

Evaluation and assessment are at the core of what I do as an educator and as a classroom teacher.  I make that distinction because as an educator, I am constantly looking at the work I do and reflecting on how it can be improved.  As a classroom teacher, the kids, parents, and administrators demand the feedback to help students become better speakers, writers, and learners.  In my world of arts education, assessment and evaluation are invaluable.

This post, however, is not about how I use assessment or evaluation in my world.  This is to introduce you to the new teacher evaluation system revealed in New York public schools, optimistically called Advance. Like all evaluations it is being put in place to raise the quality of teaching in New York and hold teachers accountable for doing good work in the classroom—an absolute necessity for educators (or anyone, really).  And, in an ideal world, we would stand up and cheer, grateful that someone cares how we are doing as teachers.  In fact, Advance is based on seven “Guiding Principles” that state that evaluation should:

1.  Be instructionally valuable for the employee

2.  Support development of best practices

3.  Create options for autonomy in the workplace

4.  Be a reliable and valid means of gauging effectiveness

5.  Be fair

6.  Be transparent and easily understood by all employees

7.  Be feasibly implemented without undue burden.

And I complete agree with each and every one.  The State of New York Department of Education seems to understand what purpose evaluation serves and seems to care that this new system is benefiting the pedagogical health of its teachers.  What they don’t seem to understand, however, is how to implement it in a way that actually represents these “guiding principles.”

I am one of a small staff of teachers at a public middle school in Manhattan.  Among those teachers are, of course, English and social studies, math, and science teachers who, no doubt, have their own bones to pick with the new evaluation system—namely whether 40% of their worth as teachers should be determined by standardized test scores, which may or may not accurately reflect a students’ practical application of concepts taught in the classroom—but that is a discussion for another day. I am the chair of the “Miscellaneous Cluster Department” made up of teachers of gym, Spanish, technology, visual art, and me, the theatre teacher.  We have no standardized tests to hold us accountable for student learning.  We have no uniform way of conveying what exactly our kids are learning, how they are showing growth, and how we are succeeding as teachers.  Sure, our principals will assess our three to six lessons throughout the school year using the Danielson Framework for Teaching, but without standardized tests to tie to our subject areas, how could we possibly gather the remaining 40% of data needed to calculate our worth as educators in a fair, reliable, and valuable way?

There is one possible solution!  If we only have ELA (English-Language Arts), math, and science tests on which to evaluate students at the middle school level, then let’s use those scores to determine the achievement of all of the teachers at those schools, regardless of the subject a teacher might actually be responsible for teaching.

To clarify:  As a middle school theatre teacher—responsible for teaching 13 theatre classes a week—under the Advance system, I will be evaluated on my work as a classroom teacher in two ways.  60% of my score will be determined based on administrative observation, and the other 40% will be determined based on the test scores of students in subjects as far removed from theatre arts as math and science.

Let’s put this in perspective. Would we judge the abilities of the basketball coach of the New York Knicks on how well the Giants played this season? Or perhaps we could gauge the skill of a cardiologist based on how many patients made it out of brain surgery this year?  And don’t forget that talented French horn player who can’t spell.

What’s missing for me in these “guiding principles” is how any of them are actually guiding the way my team and I are being evaluated.  While this plan to assess us based on how our colleagues’ students are doing on their standardized tests is totally “feasible,” it certainly isn’t “fair” or “reliable and valid.”

When I sit down to plan my department meetings this year, there will be a focus on how we can support each other’s growth as teachers—maybe through inter-visitation, lesson studies, co-planning of units—because we can all agree that it is essential for good teachers to reflect, receive feedback, and assess their own teaching.  And until an evaluation system is in place that fairly reflects the needs of all of its teachers, we’ll just have to look after ourselves.

3 responses for Blind Appraisal


September 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Thanks for the post. Assessment is an intuitive and natural step in education, but the new "Advance" system is anything but intuitive or natural. I wish more people were aware of the points your brought up in your post.

I also reject the notion that we need an outside group to coordinate our assessment process. As educators, we spend all of our energy and professional wisdom to create a deep and meaningful learning experience for our students. A small part of this process is assessment, but I guarantee our work in assessment is lightyears beyond the current and miserable state of the "Advance" System. I can't help but wonder if they named themselves "Advance" with a sense of irony.

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another educator says
September 13, 2013 at 10:31 am

I enjoyed your post. As a fellow educator, I always enjoy hearing other perspectives. A few things for you to consider:
1- Advance is a New York CITY, not state, eval system. Yes, Advance, like any other district policy, must adopt and adhere to the regulations put forth by the state; however, every district is allowed to modify according to their needs.
2- It is up to your local teachers union to bargain the specific breakdown of this policy. For instance, I taught at a school (I am in administration in a different location now) that was facing the exact same problem you are describing: 40% of encore teachers were to be held accountable for scores in math, ELA, and science. Ridiculous. After a long battle and much research into what other states have implemented, we adopted a type of personal eval plan, in which each encore teacher decides where that 40% will come from that year (with their supervisor and principal).
3- Calling attention to problems is crucial, but it is only half the battle. As an administrator who recently spent years in the classroom, I can safely say I have seen both sides. Propose a plan to fix the problem. It's not bigger than you. Don't let them win.

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September 13, 2013 at 9:38 am

Aliza, your thoughtful post points to a problem shared by most arts educators - and others in your "miscellaneous cluster"! - and in a society driven by a need for data (a need which seems to increase as trust in intuition and feeling diminishes), it's a serious problem. How are we to quantifiably assess and evaluate those qualities many of us consider to be most important for healthy, growing human beings?

At Merge, we contend (and have decades of experience to back us up) that tracking what we call the Principles of Empowerment provides exactly what's needed - both for teachers and the powers that be. That's because these principles (such as the ability to concentrate, to communicate needs and ideas, to recognize patterns, and build on previous learning) are foundational. A student with these skills and abilities (we utilize 15 in all) is empowered to learn whatever she needs and wants to learn. We call our software SETS: Student Evaluation & Tracking System.

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