For many teachers, stress levels are at an all-time high this year, as they navigate remote lessons, socially distanced classrooms, or a combination of the two. And there's yet another looming stressor: teacher evaluations.
"You would think that given everything that's changing and everything that's brand new to teachers, that they would have figured out a way to skip a year," said Kristin Brown, a high school math and computer science teacher in Wisconsin. As a teacher, she added, you shouldn't have to "defend yourself and prove that you're an effective educator in a pandemic."
In the spring, nearly half of states eased evaluation requirements or issued flexibility or guidance for school districts, and teachers' unions are arguing for more of that as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
So far, at least 17 states have released guidance on teacher evaluations this year, according to an analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Most states are still requiring teacher evaluations in some capacity, although Mississippi has suspended the requirement for districts to submit annual employee performance data, and Illinois has told districts they will not be penalized if they don't conduct summative evaluations this year.
While some administrators and other experts say evaluations and observations are crucial to providing valuable feedback and support, many teachers say it's unfair to make potentially high-stakes job-performance decisions when they're navigating new technologies, adjusting to different methods of teaching, and trying to reach students who might not have reliable internet access or stability at home. They worry that evaluations this year, particularly those that include student growth data, won't be reflective of teachers' abilities, since students' lives and learning have been so disrupted.
Shannon Holston, the director for teacher policy at NCTQ, said she expects more states to release guidance in the coming weeks. For those that have already, "it seems a number of states understand that this is not a normal year and have tried to adjust requirements for evaluations while still really focusing on the observation and feedback component," Holston said.
For example, Colorado and Ohio will not incorporate student growth data in teacher evaluations at all this school year. And districts in Connecticut and Oregon can use social and emotional learning or student engagement measures in evaluations this year instead of academic measures to show student growth.
Massachusetts has streamlined its evaluation rubric to focus on six priorities, and Washington state has reduced the number of criteria required for comprehensive evaluations from eight to two. The rest of the evaluation score will be based on the teacher's previous score.
New Jersey and Hawaii, states where some districts are having students learn remotely some or all days of the school week, have offered an alternative to in-person classroom observations by allowing teachers to showcase their professional practice via a portfolio. Teachers who are teaching remotely can collect artifacts of instruction over a predetermined instructional period.
Many state teachers' unions have been active in calling for increased flexibility this year with test scores and evaluations. Last year, every state received a waiver to skip federally mandated standardized tests, but U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has told states they should not count on getting the same waivers this school year.
New Jersey had to tweak its student growth percentile formula because there were no statewide assessments last year from which to collect data. Instead, teachers and administrators this year are responsible for setting goals for students and assessing whether they've met those goals by the end of the year. This objective will make up 15 percent of teachers' evaluation rating, while the observations or the portfolio of practice will make up the remaining 85 percent.
Elisabeth Yucis, the associate director of professional development and instructional issues at the New Jersey Education Association, said she is concerned about the validity of using student growth measures to determine a teacher's effectiveness, given the wide variability of students' learning conditions at home as well as districts' resources.
"We have some qualms about how feasible it is for teachers to really know where their students are right now [when] schools closed mid-March, and students have had a variety of different experiences in the spring in terms of their learning," she said.
A new law in Indiana says that schools are no longer required to use state test scores when evaluating teachers. But Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said he has heard some districts are still planning to use test scores this year-which the union is against. Gambill said local associations will be working with those districts to try to eliminate test scores from evaluations.
And he called for administrators to be understanding of the circumstances when they do observations. For instance, some evaluation frameworks prioritize students working together in small groups, which is difficult to do while maintaining social distance.
"Even if you're instructing face-to-face, it isn't the same as it was last February when we were very much about engagement and students moving about the classroom and 'pair and share' and all of those techniques that we know help enrich the work we're doing," Gambill said. "Those all have to be thought through differently now."
Meanwhile, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers issued a joint statement along with state administrators' associations warning that "teachers are not primarily trained to provide remote instruction and qualified evaluators are not trained to evaluate remote instruction." Districts should focus on evaluations on "formative feedback and support" instead of summative ratings, the groups said.
Carmen Ayala, the Illinois state superintendent of education, then wrote in a letter to districts that they will have the flexibility this year to not conduct summative teacher evaluations. But administrators should still observe teachers, she wrote, because that allows them to "provide extra support to teachers who are struggling and reveal the heroic efforts of teachers who are creating strategies that work."
Even so, teachers say observing virtual classrooms should be done with grace. Brown, the Wisconsin teacher, said her district does not require students to turn their video cameras on during class. The result is a very different classroom than she would have in person.
"It's basically teaching to 25 names on a screen and trying to engage kids in any way we can," she said. "To then have your administrator pop in and see that-it brings up so much anxiety. It's not normal."
And there's no widely accepted list of best practices for teaching remotely, said Monise Seward, a special education teacher in Georgia.
"Even though we had the summer to regroup and reflect on what we did in March, April, and May, we still have not really had any 'official' quality training on what they expect our online environment to look like," she said. "You can have a list all you want of things to check off, but if I look at a list, I might do it this way, and someone else might do it another way."
Seward has been teaching remotely all semester. Her district is planning to start bringing students back one day a week early next month, but she expects her observations will be done during remote classes.
There are so many challenges to a remote lesson that are beyond her control, she said. "We're working against bad internet, outdated devices. We're trying to serve kids whose parents might be at work, or kids who-let's just be honest-don't want to do this," Seward said.
Her own internet can be unreliable, and she's using her school-issued laptop, which has its problems. Seward said some teachers have bought two monitors, ring lights, and microphones to make remote teaching easier-but she can't afford a set-up like that.
Teachers are limited with how they can react to unexpected challenges during remote classes, said Gambill, of the Indiana state teachers' union.
"If technology freezes or there's an issue with connectivity, that's not something you can course-correct for in the same way you could if everyone is in person," he said.
Yet administrators say that, if done with empathy and compassion, evaluations this year can be an opportunity for feedback and support.
"This is all new for everyone-everyone's a first-year teacher again in a lot of ways," said Randy Squier, the superintendent of Coxsackie-Athens Central school district, located along the Hudson River of New York.
The district is open for in-person instruction, which 80 percent of students are doing, but it's still not a normal school year. Middle and high school teachers are simultaneously teaching the students in front of them and the students watching from home via livestream. One teacher in each elementary grade is teaching a remote-only class. And even though most students are back in person, teachers still have to adjust their instructional practices to ensure social distancing.
Squier said he will make the evaluation process, which is required by the state, "as painless as we can make it, but at the same time useful" by taking the opportunity to do some coaching. Principals will ask teachers what they want to work on, conduct a preliminary observation, provide targeted feedback on the instructional practice in question, and then conduct a second observation to see if the teacher improved. Principals won't be looking at the full observation rubric this year, Squier said.
"It's really about, 'What do you want feedback on?' Especially with everything [being] new, that's the approach I'd like to take," he said. "I think it's more important that we ease the anxiety that our teachers may have. They have enough going on."
One way to put less pressure on teachers is conducting shorter, more frequent, and informal observations, NCTQ's Holston said. Research shows that those "shorter bites of feedback" can be more helpful in improving teachers' practice, she said.
"If we're not observing and having these conversations, then we don't know as much as we possibly can to support those teachers," Holston said, adding that it's still important to evaluate remote teaching because "although we hope this to be a short-lived experience, ... we really don't know."
Teachers say they welcome coaching and feedback. Seward said she'd find it more helpful to have another teacher observe her class, so she can get feedback from someone who's currently in the trenches with remote instruction. Mostly, Brown said, teachers want to be afforded professional trust that they're doing their best possible work under challenging circumstances.
"The sentiment out there is that teachers are drowning, and day to day we might have our heads above water for a little bit of time, but the next minute we're gasping for air," she said. "What can I give up, and what can I do differently, so that I'm always above water? Once we're in this for a while, we'll get a routine going. Just let us get our feet under us before jumping in."