Robert Littlejohn describes how data can inform professional improvement.

The plural of anecdote is data.” To a great extent we have the higher education community to thank for the concept of assessment – at least as it pertains to education. Assessment became the mantra of higher education accreditation in the 1990s, leading to the generation of massive amounts of data at colleges and universities across the nation. But, what to do with all these data? That was the dilemma faced by thousands of institutions until the turn of the millennium when accrediting agencies began to realize the purpose of the data produced through assessment was institutional improvement. Suddenly, only data that were relevant to answering questions about institutional direction and strategic improvement were of value, and such data could genuinely help frame and answer questions that, in turn, could guide the improvement process.

Similarly, assessment applied to human performance (i.e., evaluation) must be improvement–focused. And, the best evidence that improvement is possible or, indeed, warranted is, likewise, data. No longer is the subjective opinion of a single supervisor, based upon the perfunctory annual (or semi-annual) visit to the classroom sufficient to convince the professional educator that improvement is necessary or important. Without data trends, corroborated by a variety of sources, the performance review process is reduced to little more than a difference of opinion, often between someone with many years of classroom experience (the reviewee) and an administrator with, perhaps, considerably less classroom experience (the reviewer).

In reality, there are numerous predictors of professional success for the contemporary independent school teacher, with mastery of subject, curriculum development, pedagogy, and instructional and classroom management skills sharing the lime light with other now equally important indicators. Today’s master teacher must also master a growing set of essential soft skills, such as team work, peer and supervisor relations, parent communication, and student relationship building. So, the effective assessment process must accumulate and benefit from data relevant to each of these aspects of professional development and success.

In recent years, Trinity Academy of Raleigh has gradually implemented such a process, incrementally adding survey data from peers, parents and students to already existing supervisor and self-evaluation instruments. Instruments have been collaboratively developed and revised by teachers and supervisors, with input from students and parents, where appropriate. Brainstorm sessions have identified professional and relational skills and characteristics that are valued by each constituency group, and online surveys (Survey Monkey) have been used to prioritize a list of 20 assessment questions for each instrument. Surveys have been similarly created for teaching assistants, academic administrators and administrative staff. Parents and upper school students have completed the surveys online, and staff have identified peers who could reasonably review their performance and whose performance they could confidently review via online survey.

Although we are still learning, we have already seen considerable value in this process for relevant professional development and genuine performance improvement. The data speak for themselves, especially as compared to whole-staff averages for the 20 assessment questions. Staff are readily able to see patterns from multiple sources that corroborate both areas of professional strength and those where improvement is necessary. We have found it to be a creative way to provide objective feedback for typically subjective notions about performance.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of our implementation of the process is building a credible means of rewarding current performance and performance improvement into the process. For three years, our board has designated a generous pool of “merit compensation.” Everyone gets something, but higher performers (as judged by survey data sets) are rewarded more generously. Perhaps not surprisingly, this reward system has been met with decidedly polarized reaction. As NAIS president Patrick Bassett notes in speaking engagements:

The culture of schools’ workplace militates against innovative thinking about compensation: Teachers prefer predictable, non-competitive compensation and resist being “singled out.” NOTE: Research shows, on the other hand, that rigid pay scales discourage high ability individuals to enter or stay in teaching. (Goldhaber, The Urban Institute, “How Has Teacher Compensation Changed?” Selected Papers in School Finance 2000-2001).

The system is not perfect, but is far superior to the “standard” in many independent schools. As Paideia, Inc. president Bruce Lockerbie often quips: “The first evaluation most private school teachers or administrators receive is on the back of a pink slip.”

It is important to express thanks to Eddie Krenson, VP for Non-Public Schools with SACS- CASI, for leading Trinity Academy in the initial process of implementation of principles of performance review that he has personally adapted from Independent School Management (ISM).

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