Maine Schools in Focus: Improving Educator Effectiveness—Useful Feedback Key to Maine’s PEPG Initiative
In 2012, Maine joined the majority of states in the effort to upgrade professional quality through better performance evaluation of teachers and principals. The Legislature, in passing LD 1858, required all districts to develop Professional Evaluation and Professional Growth (PEPG) systems, part of the federal government’s Race to the Top. All districts were to create their own systems and pilot them in 2015-16. This year, some districts are implementing these systems while others are taking a second year of pilot-testing (MDOE).
When viewed against the history of educator improvement efforts, the PEPG initiative is the most ambitious nationwide effort ever (Kane et al, 2014). While it’s too early to tell how well these efforts are going, anecdotal reports and a 2016 study in four districts indicate that the “learning curve” for most teachers and administrators is steep (Mette & Fairman, 2016). PEPG frameworks require rubrics defining professional proficiencies, trustworthy measures of student learning, ample evidence of teacher/principal practices to permit confident ratings by colleagues and administrators, and the management of a more complex and time-consuming system than in the past. In addition, districts must have access to a rich array of learning opportunities for their educators; the “PG” in PEPG requires that this not just be “educator evaluation” but that it include “educator growth.”
At its core, the success of professional evaluation and growth hinges on the quality of feedback—what a teacher or principal can learn about how her or his performance is benefiting (or hampering) student learning and personal development (McKay & Silva, 2015). What do we know about providing high quality feedback to educators—feedback that leads to professional growth and better teaching? The Carnegie Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching recently published a series of three briefs addressing the central challenges of improving teacher—and we would argue, principal—performance (carnegiefoundation.org). As Maine teachers and principals strive to implement new PEPG systems, what advice might Carnegie offer?
First, educators and their observers must, as Carnegie puts it, “deeply understand a common frame of reference for quality teaching” (McKay & Silva, p. 2). MDOE’s guidelines for PEPG identified several approved models of quality teaching and leadership. For those who are observing our educators at work (and this includes both administrators and fellow teachers) and for all Maine’s educators, it’s essential that they “deeply” understand all the elements of the model they’re using. Carnegie’s series emphasizes that this requires sustained learning by all these educators to the point where they all know these best practices when they see them in action.
Second, observers not only need to be skilled at documenting what educators are doing as they teach and lead, they must be able to “interpret the evidence” and equate it with the rubric spelling out what good teaching/leading looks like. When Mr. Hogan explained the concept of voice, for example, did all students appear engaged and to “get it”? Did Ms. Martin, the principal, allow for all voices and perspectives during the faculty meeting discussion? According to Carnegie, becoming skilled as an observer in order to accurately rate performance on a rubric requires a great deal of practice. Feedback to observers during this training is essential (Kane et al., 2014).
Third, observers need to develop the skills essential to giving effective feedback. As McKay and Silva put it: “Despite the training time they spend on accurate scoring and calibration [for the rubric], observers are often ill-prepared to offer actionable, high-leverage feedback or to conduct effective and collegial conferences” (p. 5). Without successful feedback, the best observations using the best rubrics will come to naught or, worse, cause defensiveness and discouragement. For the whole PEPG process to result in teacher and principal growth, feedback needs to be “concrete and helpful” (p. 6); it needs to be communicated skillfully so it is received accurately and positively.
A common requirement for the success of these three components is time to learn and to practice the key activities of observation and feedback. Especially when busy teachers and administrators are engaged in “school as usual,” it takes an extraordinary effort to stay engaged in learning to “deeply” understand and use new practices well. The Maine Education Policy Research Institute’s ongoing examination of PEPG reveals how principals’ and teachers’ routines have had to change to make room for these new tasks; it also reports that teachers and principals are seeing benefits already from their new capacity to focus on professional growth (Mette & Fairman, 2016).
Maine’s approach to PEPG is well supported by research: engage educators in planning; ensure the support of administration and board; provide time and resources to learn, plan, and implement; collect data along the way to inform decisions. Of particular value to educators in the MEPRI districts has been the emphasis on individualizing professional growth plans to the specific needs of teachers and principals. While some aspects of PEPG remain controversial—the requirement, for example, to include measures of student learning—encouraging Maine’s districts to develop approaches that respond to local conditions is vital to the long-term success of this reform (carnegiefoundation.org).
Looking ahead to the first year of statewide implementation in 2017-18, we pose several questions that are likely to shape the success of PEPG.
- Are districts finding the time and professional commitment for all teachers and principals to be skilled at understanding rubrics, conducting observations, and offering useful feedback?
- Once educators set goals for their own growth, are they finding adequate, available resources to support that growth? Is funding to access these resources readily accessible?
- How are state agencies, organizations, and universities bolstering the professional development environment so it will be ready to support educator growth statewide?
- Are the documentation demands of the new system weighing it down, diverting energy and optimism away from the three core components of effective performance assessment summarized here?
These are questions that districts can ask as they plan and set budgets for 2017-18. So much time and effort have already gone into developing each PEPG plan. It would be a shame if we as a state didn’t see this important initiative through to a successful end.
Kane, T., K. Kerr, R. Pianta, Eds. (2014). Designing teacher evaluation systems: New guidance from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass)
McKay, S. and E. Silva (2015). Improving observer training: The trends and the challenges. (Princeton NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching)
MDOE: Education evolving: Maine’s plan for putting learners first. (maine.gov/education) Mette, I and J. Fairman (2016). Piloting PE/PG systems in Maine school districts: Lessons learned. Orono, ME: Maine Education Policy Research Institute.
Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development, its faculty, or employees. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 750 words.
Contact: Gordon Donaldson at firstname.lastname@example.org.