Ethical Educator

A Rubric Targeting Color
School Administrator, November 2021

Scenario: A school district has collaborated with the local teachers’ union to adopt new teacher observation/evaluation protocols.  Although the rubrics seem quite clear and unbiased, male teachers of color are disproportionately receiving "unsatisfactory" evaluations. The system has been in place for three years. Should the superintendent advocate for staff to revise the rubric and push for the district to change how it uses the evaluation to retain, promote or dismiss teachers?

Chris Nicastro:

All evaluation systems can benefit from ongoing and regular review. Conducting such reviews every three to five years is appropriate and necessary. Changing staff, changing leadership and current social realities suggest that how supervisors approach evaluation and how employees receive it change all the time. Ongoing review and training ensure that communication is clear and that the system works to improve employee performance and foster growth. The process must be open and collaborative.  

While the leadership of the district, with all good intentions, believed that these conditions were in place when the current system was developed, there's nothing to say that male teachers of color were consulted nor that special attention was given to issues of discrimination and equity. Were supervisors given targeted training to avoid inherent biases? Was there a significant effort to recognize and confront internalized oppression on the part of supervisors of color or internalized racism in white supervisors? If it is apparent that the system over-identifies male of color for poor evaluations, there is a problem. Investigating and resolving the causes are critical.  

Board policy needs to be reviewed in terms of the current reality of issues related to race.  School boards and superintendents committed to equity would be well advised to do a thorough review of board policy and administrative procedures through the equity lens.  Districts that assume a pro-active and aggressive stance in such action will benefit greatly in terms of employee relations and satisfaction, community relations and—most importantly—in modeling for and serving the children of the district.  

MaryEllen Elia:

It is difficult to reach consensus on a teacher observation/evaluation system with your teachers’ union. So when a district succeeds in agreeing on a system, the leadership will be hesitant to open it up for review – which is why a review protocol should be built into the process.

The review ought to take place annually, examining the data by subgroups, grade levels, student performance and demographics. Analysis should include all the components and include data that reflect outcomes as well. In this scenario, the superintendent should call for a comprehensive review of all aspects of the evaluation system to see the outcomes and their relevance in driving instruction for students. That will provide the information necessary to determine if changes are needed.  

Options include using multiple evaluators, supports for lower-performing teachers in the form of peer mentors and improvement plans for all teachers. The purpose of evaluations should ultimately be to help all teachers to improve.  

Sheldon Berman: 

Disproportionality could clearly be an indication of bias within the evaluation rubrics and protocols and should be examined more closely. Three years of experience with the new evaluation system provides an ample basis for determining whether it is achieving the goals that prompted its revision, as well as whether the new version contains any unintended biases.

Although any review of the system should engage a broad audience of both those performing the evaluations and those being evaluated, the examination should specifically focus on the perspectives of teachers of color, particularly those who have received unsatisfactory evaluations. Hearing their feedback firsthand could provide insight into differing interpretations of the rubrics and protocols relative to expectations for instructional delivery and student-teacher relationships. 

However, the district must also be prepared to examine whether the disproportionality may reflect not a problem with the rubrics, but rather hidden bias among those performing the observations. The analysis will need to review data on who performed the evaluations and whether or how the perceptions of these individuals differed. The district would be well served to ensure that those performing the observations receive training that includes issues related to cultural diversity, hidden bias, and other subtle forms of racism.  

The superintendent should open a dialogue with the teachers union and urge its leaders to join in the review, thereby continuing the collaborative process that led to the adoption of the revised evaluation system. Any teacher evaluation process should set high standards and expectations for teacher performance but also be unbiased in both its rubrics and its administration. It’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure a culturally inclusive evaluation process that supports the retention of a diverse teaching staff, reflecting the races, ethnicities, and cultures of the students they teach. 

Louis Wool: 

Whether the school district should consider revising its teacher evaluation rubric should be based on a careful review of whether the unsatisfactory ratings that are disproportionately directed at male teachers of color are based on standards or practices that indicate a bias toward this group of individuals or any group of individuals. 

If a comprehensive review reveals a bias that results in this disproportionality, it should not only be immediately addressed but any inherent harm that has been done to these teachers must be addressed thoroughly and simultaneously.

Conversely, if after a comprehensive review of the evidence including a review of all of the written evaluations, the individuals writing them, strict adherence to the evidence-based rubric were to reveal there is no inherent bias the results should stand. If the evaluation process is fair and has been implemented with fidelity, it is a disservice to students that teachers found ineffective in pedagogical practice irrespective of race, gender or sexual orientation, be retained. 

The research of the positive impact of highly qualified teachers on all students is incontrovertible, there is nothing more important than ensuring high-quality teachers for every child.

District leadership has the responsibility to improve and diversify the workforce, particularly the teacher and administrator workforce. The district should be proactive in ensuring that their recruitment practices, induction programs, mentoring practices and the availability of professional development ensure that all teachers in the system are well supported and that their support is differentiated.

Finally, I can speak from practical experience about the challenges of implementing a new teacher evaluation system. In 2002, my first year as superintendent I negotiated and implemented a new teacher evaluation system. One teacher who was not renewed sued the district on the premise that she was discriminated against because she was pregnant. The district prevailed in federal court, and despite having the opportunity to settle out of court, the Board of Education and I felt it was important to take the case to trial because we wanted to demonstrate publicly that our practices, while rigorous, were both fair and ethical to all parties. 

The most important parts of implementing a new evaluation system of any kind are that it be research-based, that your team is carefully trained on its implementation, and that you remain in constant communication with the union leadership so that the process can be recalibrated if necessary.  It is our ultimate responsibility to be fair to our teachers while still ensuring that our students have the highest-quality instructional experience.

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Sheldon Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.