There's No "I" in Team: Rebooting Teacher Evaluation

Bad news we’ve heard before just came around again: large investments in evaluation systems and professional development for teachers have not improved individual teachers’ performance. As reflected in a new report, a common and widespread approach to thinking about teacher effectiveness is strictly as individual teacher performance and professional learning—instead of figuring out how to leverage collective teacher expertise. Since the focus on individuals just took another bullet, there must be a better way forward.

And there is. Together, federal, state, and local policymakers could reboot teacher evaluation. They could create evaluation systems that identify complementary teaching strengths and use that information to build strong, collaborative teams of teachers that can supercharge instructional quality and boost student learning.

By over-emphasizing individual teachers in evaluation and professional learning, today’s evaluation systems go wrong in three ways:

  • They pigeonhole individuals instead of leveraging expertise by building strong teacher teams with complementary strengths.
  • They home in on individual teachers’ weaknesses instead of organizing grade levels, schools, and districts to capitalize on teacher strengths.
  • They ignore the role of school climate and conditions and school leaders’ roles in shaping them.

These flaws stem from the unrealistic assumption that we can develop 100 percent of every teacher’s potential—a great goal but one no other profession meets. Far better would be aiming to make sure that students consistently get high quality teaching. Under that rallying cry, schools and districts would leverage areas where some teachers are stronger than others and create conditions such as time for sustained, ongoing collaboration where teachers can learn from one another and grow their complementary strengths.

Other professional sectors have long since recognized the team approach we are proposing here. Recently, working with 21 companies, one research team at MIT used electronic badges to collect sociometric data (measures of how people interact) on individual team members’ communication patterns. The “it factor” that differentiated high and low performing teams turned out to be a combination of five communication patterns. More important, the researchers found, “individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than one might expect. The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.”

MIT’s finding suggests simply pairing teachers to capitalize on their individual strengthens won’t trigger the needed reboot. Instead, a successful team requires a structure of planning supports that can guide and shape such basics as communication patterns so that those with complementary strengths pull together toward a common goal.

A fair bit is known on how to create effective teacher teams. And real-life examples like these of taking a more team-focused approach augur well for teaming in teacher development and evaluation:

  • Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture, currently being implemented in 30 schools, extends the reach of excellent teachers through strong teacher teams and also builds evaluation, compensation, and professional development systems that fit with this approach.
  • The T-3 Initiative from Teach Plus recruits teacher leaders from partnering high-needs schools to lead grade-level or subject-area teams in an instructional improvement cycle, including designing annual student learning goals. Teacher leaders receive targeted professional development, ongoing training and networking opportunities, and one-on-one coaching alongside year round leadership training.
  • New Leaders’ recent initiative, Playmakers: How Great Principals Build and Lead Great Teams of Teachers, revamps the role of principals in creating the right school structures and conditions to support teacher teams. The organization’s policy brief offers practical recommendations for state and local policymakers interested in promoting a team-based approach to structuring schools. 

The jury’s no longer out on this issue. So, isn’t now the time for these conversations to shift from policies aimed at individual teacher performance toward building strong grade-level and school- and district-teams? Zeroing in on collective performance—and the talent-development policies that district and school leaders need to nurture strong, collaborative teams of teachers with complementary strengths—could end the cycle of bad news about the current approach to teacher performance.

Jenni Fipaza is a researcher at AIR specializing in educator quality and school leadership.