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Mark Gardner | November 3, 2012



ClipboardAt some point in nearly every writing assignment I submitted in high school, those three letters were scrawled in the margins: "awk." To clarify for those who have clearer syntax and diction than I do, "awk." stands for "awkward."

What that means, and how specifically to remedy it, is kind of hard to pin down.

Walking down the hall with a couple teachers the other day, one admitted: "When I'm reading a student's writing and am not sure what to tell them to do to fix it, I just write awk." As we kept visiting, she said what most teachers think or feel at some point, and that is that when we look at student writing, we know what we would do to fix it if it were our own writing, but to try to get a student to be able to figure out how to fix it on his own (our ultimate goal) is a different story. 

Giving feedback is a delicate balancing act. On one hand, if we make editing marks all over a paper, the student might make corrections but likely won't internalize the lessons in favor of just doing the editing: If I just fix if for him, the student won't learn. On the other hand, if margin feedback doesn't give the student a lesson on how to avoid the same error next time, then it's no good--there won't be learning and there won't be growth. The answer is somewhere in the middle, and, frustratingly, is different for every single student.

This got me thinking about how administrators ought to be giving formative feedback to teachers within the new teacher evaluation system being piloted in Washington--and which goes "live" in 2013-14 for all of us. (If you teach in Washington, you really should get to know this site.) The drum I've been beating about the new evaluation system is that at its foundation is the premise that moving to a four point scale makes clearer how a teacher can move to higher levels of professional proficiency--just like when we give scoring scales or rubrics to our students as they strive to master complex skills and processes in our classroom.

Even though the legislation that drove the new system is more about "teacher accountability" than "professional growth," the model that has great potential to actually promote professional growth, if...


That's the scary part. A good assessment tool in the hands of an ineffective teacher does not guarantee that students will learn. A good assessment tool in the hands of an ineffective administrator does not guarantee that teachers will become better. 

Too much that happens in our system follows the path of least resistance: doing what is easiest to administer ends up trumping what is tougher--and better--to do. The new eval system will have bugs and isn't necessarily perfect right out of the box. It will demand time. It will be hard. It will demand that we change and that our evaluators change and, if we're smart, that our systems change. That is all tough, and better than what we have, and I firmly believe has the potential to transform our profession in a good way.

But it's easier to just write "awk" than to actually do it right. That's what worries me.


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That is very reassuring, Kristin. I'm optimistic, I really am, but we're just in the pilot right now so the unknowns are everywhere.

That's good to hear, Kristin!

I'm on my third year of being evaluated with the Danielson Framework, with my third of three administrators evaluating me, and I have to say your fears are - from my experience - unfounded.

None of my administrators had a magical increase in free time to do such a rigorous evaluation of me, but they all felt it took priority over whatever else might have been on their to-do list, and they all gave me thoughtful, thorough, meaningful evaluations.

I'm in the largest middle school in the state. There are 65 teachers divided between three administrators who evaluate us. They do an excellent job.

I can't imagine my school is such an exception. I think administrators across the state will agree that this is a huge increase in the time and effort they put into evaluations, but I think they would almost all agree that it's time well spent.

I have the same concern, Mark. Which is why I think most administrators will give most teachers an overall score of "proficient," while giving one or two low sub-scores in the areas that the teachers could stand the most improvement.

I can live with that, but it's probably not what the legislature had in mind.

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