Saturday, July 5, 2014

Effective vs Highly Effective – Do we need to clarify?

My last blog post focused on the importance of self-reflecting, which intrigued me to reflect and ask a simple question regarding our current professional growth process:  Is it improving instruction and professional growth, or is it creating stress and anxiety for teachers? 

It is inevitable that teacher evaluations are becoming increasingly important at the state level, and it filters down to districts and school buildings where principals and teaching faculty are experiencing stress.  How do you quantify an exceptional teacher?  This is a question many are asking, and it’s leaving educators with a feeling of uneasiness within our profession due to political uncertainties surrounding the process. 

There are many different tools being utilized to evaluate teachers.  The state of Michigan (where I work) created The Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, (MCEE) that selected four teacher observation tools (Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model, The Thoughtful Classroom, and 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning) to be piloted among a variety of different school districts.  Eventually, one will be chosen and it will be the principal’s daunting task to evaluate all teachers, without subjectivity, and with extreme integrity and fidelity to the process.  Student growth will be the predominant factor and there will be domains, dimensions, components, and/or frameworks focused on teacher effectiveness, with loads of research to back up each principle.  Research based teacher evaluation tools have their place in education; however, I want to make the process motivating for teachers. This can be achieved by focusing on what we can improve, strategically setting goals that matches our ever changing educational landscape, supporting the 21 Century.  The evaluation tool should be utilized as a support to teachers and administrators, guiding instructional conferences and encouraging continuous professional growth, within our craft of educating children.   

In the past, the evaluation activities were not much different than they are today.  The process would consist of observing the lesson, providing feedback by showcasing accolades, and collaborating on improvements to take the lesson to the next level.  These were great conversations of support, which included celebrating success and setting goals for sustained improvement.  The process was stress free, (for the most part) and still held us accountable for continuous improvement and professional reflection of effectiveness. 

Unfortunately, the new process is stressful, not because we are utilizing a research based evaluation tool.  I enjoy utilizing a rubric to support and generate conversations during our instructional conferences.  The problem lies with effective vs highly effective.  Obviously, quality teachers, who are excited about their profession, do not want to be considered less than effective. The problem is that the highest level of stress tends to be with teachers who are effective and do not receive a highly effective rating. Most teachers are focused on student learning and professional growth.  Those who are not should be dealt with in a confidential and appropriate manner, utilizing established protocol from your district.  I truly believe this is a very small number of teachers.  Usually, teachers that are teetering between minimally effective and effective have documented examples that justify the need for future growth.  The same can be said for teachers teetering between effective and highly effective. This continues to lead to debate (or at least an awkward conversation) rather than positive instructional conferencing dialogue for improved teaching.   

Assuming that a teacher meets many/all of the effective and highly effective qualities, along with having adequate student growth,  then the question should be asked: what are the problems with having a highly effective category?  Things to ponder: 

-          We utilize the Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching in my district to generate conversation surrounding the evaluation process; however, she created the rubrics for professional growth, and not necessarily a ranking system.  Are we using the model as it was intended? 
-          Announced and unannounced observations represent a small sampling of what takes place throughout the school year.  Is this a true indicator of what takes place during all lessons, with respect to instructional strengths and areas of improvement? 
-          One principal’s viewpoint and philosophy might be different from another within a district, even when trained under the same model.  Can we guarantee that our viewpoints are consistent across the state, district, or even buildings? 
-          Exceptional teachers can adjust teaching to meet many of the Highly Effective categories when an administrator enters the room; however, is this is an indicator of what takes place each and every day?  Is there a need for deeper self-reflection (previous post)? 
-          Political uncertainties continue to surround the evaluation process.  Can we feel comfortable with a process that could change, due to legislative mandates that have not been determined? 

This dilemma is stressful for administrators as well.  A question I always ask myself: how can I be highly effective when the landscape of education is always changing and there are so many variables that can guide future growth?  Administrators want to do a great job of providing honest feedback, without teachers being worried about their effectiveness category.  Most teachers want to be great, and the evaluation process should be the avenue that fosters improvement within our ever-changing profession.  Do we need a highly effective category to accomplish our goals?   

For now, the law states that we must have multiple rating (highly effective, effective, minimally effective, or ineffective) categories.  With that said, we need to clarify what it means to be highly effective so that we are utilizing the Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching to support our conversations about professional growth rather than effectiveness. 

Some possible ideas for clarifying Highly Effective:

-          Teacher must initiate a desire to be highly effective during goal setting meetings at the start of the school year, setting expectations to maintain effectiveness over multiple years. 
-          Teacher must demonstrate ability within all or a considerable amount of the highly effective domain attributes, showcasing best practice and 21st century learning strategies.
-          Longitudinal student growth data (3-5 years) should meet or be above target growth expectations. student growth philosophy 
-          Attend 10 additional hours of PD (above the 30 required) during the school year, bringing the information back to the relevant staff.  Teacher is a leader in their field and impact students beyond their own classroom.
-          Teacher has the ability and willingness to teach all children and grade levels within professional certificate.
-          Zero discipline or letters of concern from stakeholders (administrator discretion) within the last 3-5 years. 
-          Teacher is the positive voice in education, supporting their craft and profession with positive attendance. 
-          Accurate self-reflection on each domain, indicating where growth is necessary.  Deeper self-reflection is necessary throughout the school year.  See previous post. 
-          Teacher demonstrates above and beyond attributes that supports the building and district. 
-          Teacher is willing to be a host classroom for teams of administrators or teachers for the purpose of instructional rounds.
-          Additional observations by outside administrators, supporting consistency between buildings.  

There will always be a level of subjectivity; however, creating a clarifying list, while establishing your effectiveness desire at the start of the school year, will decrease stress and bring the conversations back to professional growth. 

This is just one principal’s ramblings about the current dilemma we are all experiencing.  Feel free to share your comments regarding your process or beliefs.  It is important to collaborate and reflect as we continue to navigate through this process.  Thanks for reading! 
Keith Howell


  1. All very good questions and things to think about Keith. Thanks for the tips and Happy Day After the Fourth! Natalie

    1. Same to you and enjoy the summer! Thanks for reading!

  2. Your list of clarifying standards for highly effective is a good start. Please continue to advocate for this evolution in GP. Does such a list actually create a fifth level beyond the current rubric (not necessarily a bad thing) or can these be used as examples within the current framework?

    Another question I've had is how to handle classrooms where the Danielson highly effective standard is not necessarily applicable to that specific environment. Rather than scoring each domain (many of which the teacher and administrator have never discussed) would it be helpful for the teacher/administrator to identify 8-10 areas to evaluate each cycle?

    1. It might be helpful to identify areas. We are working with the paperwork requirements to make it more streamline and purposeful. The key to the evaluation process is to discuss professional growth rather than effectiveness... unless effectiveness is an issue. I will continue to advocate and I appreciate your comments. Enjoy the summer!

  3. Last year I was one of those teachers who was deeply wounded when I only received effective instead of highly effective. At first I was completely ok with it because I too saw the Danielson model as a tool for growth. It wasn't until 10 other teachers who had different evaluators got highly effective. It's not they weren't highly effective, but I saw my own strategies and methods, reflection, PD and contributuion to the building to be on par or even more evident yet under a different administrator I had a lower score. What most startled me was that my effective rating was now the lowest in my department, making me more vulnerable to being dismissed if there was a need to reduce staff. This year I spent more time documenting, filing, providing evidence and making sure I hit every checkmark on the framework to earn the highly effective. Did I improve in some methods? Yes. Did other services suffer - like extra time tutoring students or more individual contacts to parents. Yes as well. There are only so many hours in a day and worrying more about "highly effective" took precedent over being more available and calmer.

    1. Thank you for making a comment. I know many that share your feelings. Your story is the reason I advocate for a change in the current evaluation/ranking requirements set by the state. I hear too many conversations, in many different districts, that revolve around effective vs highly effective concerns. We need to find a way to keep the conversations about student success and professional growth rather than effectiveness. I appreciate your dedication to teaching!

    2. Thank you for this encouraging response to Cindy. I hear principals struggle with this, as they too want to work in a positive way towards "success and professional growth." Your staff is fortunate to have you working with them.

    3. Thank you for the kind words and encouragement!

  4. To Cindy Warber: Yours is the story that will resonate with so many. Teachers are not robots; we each excel in different areas, and are highly effective in different areas. Quantifying teaching like this dehumanizes us. It takes the focus away from teaching students, away from learning, and towards proving a checklist. In the end, that checklist will mean nothing because time was lost that should have been reserved for the teacher's focus on his/her students. I'm sorry for your story and trust you have kept your faith in teaching as the most noble of professions -- stay focused on your students; they are what matter.

    1. Gramma Solo, Thank you for the caring response to Cindy. Keeping our students as the primary consideration to everything we do is the key to being successful and happy within our profession. I appreciate your response and dedication to education.

  5. Great post! However, to really improve practice Evaluation must be separated from Appraisal ( while observations should simply be scrapped (, and that is before discussing "what is teaching?"!!

    1. Granny Smith, Thank you for reading and sharing the links on Evaluation/Appraisal and Observations. Great thinking; however, I still see value in observations and a holistic approach to the professional growth process. Positive dialogue on this topic will continue to support educators through the process. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This is very well done Keith! I too find that the amount of stress that these evaluations are causing teachers is too high and I'm not quite sure how to alleviate that. Teaching is much harder now than when we, the current evaluators, were teachers and I think we must always be sure to remember that. I like your list because it spells out what is expected and how a teacher can earn the highly effective rating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections. I learn so much from you and many others. Have a great weekend!

    1. Thanks Jon! So true, it was much easier when I was teaching. Just trying to figure this out together. I always appreciate your support and thoughtful posts. Take care!