Most teacher evaluation systems being developed at both the state and district levels rely on a theory of action that implies evaluation is a powerful lever for improving teaching performance and ultimately student outcomes. Each evaluation system identifies essential teaching behaviors (often in the form of professional teaching standards) that define effective practice.

Most teacher evaluation systems being developed at both the state and district levels rely on a theory of action that implies evaluation is a powerful lever for improving teaching performance and ultimately student outcomes. Each evaluation system identifies essential teaching behaviors (often in the form of professional teaching standards) that define effective practice. Teachers are then assessed against these standards, and multiple measures including classroom observations, teaching artifacts and student surveys provide a portrait of a teacher’s strengths and needs.

Teacher Evaluation’s Promise

However, in order to improve, we need to do more than assess teachers; we need to provide teachers with professional development opportunities targeted to their areas of growth. Once teachers go through this cycle of evaluation and professional learning, they will improve in their areas of need and student achievement will increase. This theory of action has been a powerful and persuasive argument for the investment in and adoption of teacher evaluation systems across the country. But the question remains: Can teacher evaluation deliver on this promise of professional learning and growth? We argue that while a professional growth orientation is possible for teacher evaluation systems, it requires a significant shift in culture and realignment of resources and structures at the school and district level to support teachers’ development from novices to experts.

Understanding How Teachers Develop Expertise

The dearth of research on how teachers develop professionally is a serious impediment to the aim of designing evaluation systems that support professional growth. However, there are some areas where we have made significant progress. There are now many performance rubric models  that define the progression of key teaching behaviors, knowledge, and skills from novice to expert; Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching is just one such example. States and districts have also been working to design or modify performance rubrics that define effective practice for their local context.

To ensure that teachers continue to move toward higher levels of proficiency, more information is needed about what it takes to move teachers from one level of understanding to the next. The research on how professionals become experts offers some valuable insights into this progression.

Most researchers of expertise agree that it typically takes about ten years to become an expert in any field, and that it’s difficult to be an expert in more than one domain. Researchers have identified a series of behaviors–including reinvestment of mental resources, progressive problem solving, and motivation—which appear to play a role in the development of this expertise.

  • Reinvestment of mental resources:  Novices in any profession spend mental resources on activities that over time become more automated. For example, beginning teachers spend significantly more time thinking about classroom management than more experienced teachers who have developed a repertoire of strategies and routines to effectively address this area. One important difference between experts and novices is that experts’ mental resources are freed up as learning becomes automated, allowing them to reinvest these resources in learning new skills or tackling new problems.
  • Progressive problem solving:  Experts also learn how to think about problems in more complex ways after they solve the first-order challenges that stymie novices. As individuals become more proficient in their profession, they begin to recognize patterns and develop automaticity for complex tasks. Expert teachers more easily recognize patterns in student behaviors, think more complexly about such behaviors, and have at their disposal more strategies to address them.
  • Motivation and flow:  Both reinvestment of mental resources and progressive problem solving require serious effort and motivation. Researchers have described the concept of “flow” as particularly helpful in thinking about how to increase motivation. Flow refers to an experience of sustained pleasure or the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity. The phenomenon of flow has been reported across many professions. When people report states of “flow” they describe it as a balance between ability and challenge, where the task at hand is sufficiently easy to prevent anxiety yet sufficiently challenging to prevent boredom. Creating working environments that aim to encourage flow can help with the effort and determination that sustained improvement requires. When teachers can achieve more moments of flow in their work, they may in turn be more motivated to reinvest their mental resources into learning new skills and expanding their knowledge.
Implications for School Districts

In too many of our schools, teachers are faced with a “sit and get” model of one-shot workshops and one-size-fits-all presentations of content. Professional development in most schools today doesn’t help teachers meet the needs of their students nor does it help them grow and develop in their profession. A shift is needed from “professional development” to “professional learning,” a job-embedded, student-focused, continuous improvement approach to teacher development; hereafter, we use the term professional learning as shorthand for this approach.

The theory of teacher development articulated above demands a shift in the structure of professional learning in schools toward professional learning for teachers that is: 1) aligned to the behaviors, skills, and knowledge that define effective teaching, 2) individualized to the learner(s), taking different forms depending on the experience, skills, and needs of the specific teacher(s), and 3) embedded in the context of teaching: ongoing and collaborative.

This conceptualization has three implications for districts and schools working to create evaluation systems that are designed to foster and encourage professional growth. First, professional context matters:  teaching practice cannot be divorced from the teaching environment. How teachers understand practice is directly influenced by the culture of the school and district. Professional teaching standards (such as INTASC) and student academic standards (such as the Common Core State Standards) should be the foundation upon which professional practice is built.

Second, districts will have to think critically about intentional structures, processes, and personnel needed to promote professional learning through the evaluative process and support district priorities. Districts will likely need to employ a variety of personnel to deliver professional learning that is connected to teacher evaluation tools and targeted to individual teachers, teams, and entire faculties. Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, peer teachers, and administrators will all play a role in connecting professional learning to teacher evaluation; all will need to become fluent in the language of effective teaching and help teachers make connections between the feedback they receive and changes to their understanding and skills.

Finally, data from evaluation systems need to be high-quality, detailed at the skill level, and used as the basis for ongoing professional learning opportunities. These data should inform professional learning for individuals, groups of teachers, and the entire district, focusing on building both individual and collective expertise. Districts need to ensure that educators have access to the right information and that there are formal plans and structures in place to maximize use of that information.

Teacher evaluation is undergoing a change in this country from perfunctory to more robust systems that attempt to accurately assess performance and provide feedback to support teacher growth. This shift requires us to rethink professional learning in our schools and thoughtfully address our outdated structures and understanding about the trajectory of teachers’ development. Only then will teacher evaluation reforms begin to impact teachers’ professional growth and, ultimately, students’ learning. We have hope that teacher evaluation systems grounded in an understanding of teacher development have the potential to improve teacher practice for all teachers. But the jury is still out on whether such systems will fulfill this promise or whether the hype will become the reality.