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Former Commissioner of Education Speaks Out in Favor of New Teacher Evaluation System

The op-ed below by Betty J. Sternberg, former Connecticut commissioner of education, was published in the January 27 edition of the Hartford Courant.


Betty Sternberg, former Connecticut commissioner of education.

January 27, 2016

CT's Chance To Get Teacher Evaluations Right

It's time for evaluations of Connecticut's teaching force to create an environment for teachers and students more like that of cutting-edge companies such as my son's San Francisco-based startup, Honor. He and his employees are passionate and committed to tackling big-picture problems in our world.

His company values the individual contributions of its employees and the collaborative teamwork necessary to solve a meaty problem. There is no road map, no "rubric" to put in place and follow. He allows processes and people to evolve in his company. He honors his and their need to work and play and have joy in what they are doing. He honors their individual cognitive and emotional needs and achievements and their contributions to the culture and outcome of the company.

I have worked at various levels of education for the past 44 years; currently I am a supervising professor of teachers who are administrative interns in Connecticut public schools, and I am concerned for my profession. It has lost its way.

In our efforts to make Connecticut's schools more outcome-oriented — with a laser focus on achievement levels of students as measured solely by standardized tests and evaluation of educators based in large part on those tests — we have created a lock-step system. Lost in this drive for test results is the joy in learning and creating for students and the passion of playing in the art and science of teaching for teachers.

But there is some promise that things might change. A group of folks in Connecticut worked together to devise a teacher evaluation system that was hamstrung by the tenets of the federal program, No Child Left Behind, and the Obama administration's version of it, Race to the Top. It caused a race to the bottom in which classrooms filled with teachers, concerned about their jobs, following the dictates of their bosses also concerned about their jobs. This created classrooms of kids whose time was spent primarily practicing for tests — taking tests again and again to predict test results — continuously throughout the school year ad nauseam.

Now, given the swelling wave of concern not only from educators but also from parents, the federal administration has backtracked and issued advice that warns against over-testing. Finally, the new version of No Child Left Behind, recently enacted by Congress, leaves the states to decide to what degree, if any, these tests (still required annually from third through eighth grade and once in high school) be used as measures to evaluate teachers.

Up until now, the system of evaluation that was devised was cumbersome and convoluted. Read its requirements and your eyes would cross. What is needed now are fresh eyes to create a teacher evaluation system, elegant in its simplicity, that helps educators work toward a common good — the growth of students' cognitive and social/emotional achievements. The system should promote a school environment that does honor the need for students and teachers to work and play and have joy in what they are doing. An environment similar to one in cutting-edge companies that generates excitement and results. That environment would be evident in each classroom and in the culture of each school. It would affect students and teachers alike. It would allow for experimentation, failure and success. It would embrace learning from mistakes as a necessary step toward reaching an important goal.

An evaluation system for Connecticut's educators should be designed to value individual contribution and teamwork (between and among students, teachers, administrators and parents), to allow processes and people to evolve without fear of punishment and to focus on the art and science of teaching. This would be reflected in individual teacher instructional practice and performance, growth in students' cognitive and social/emotional achievements, and teacher contribution (individual and collective) to the school system's environment.

As the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, which is charged with re-creating a teacher evaluation system, works together from various perspectives to establish a new system, it would do well to step back from its work and ask if its re-creation will help support such a system. Connecticut's students and educators deserve no less.


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