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What Should Teacher and Student Evaluation Look Like During the Pandemic?

Children standing in front of a blackboard hold hand-drawn faces over their own, each with a different emotion.

Evaluating teachers and students during the pandemic has been an ongoing challenge—and not everyone thinks it's useful.

The usual evaluation criteria don't seem applicable, given that 40 percent of students haven't seen the inside of a classroom in more than eight months, according to a CBS report. Instead, schools should focus less on judgment and more on feedback and support to help teachers and kids improve.

Further Reading: How to Prepare for a Teacher Evaluation

Looking for Flexibility

My friend Katy, who teaches elementary school, admits that this year has not been her best year of teaching. She thinks her kids, who she's teaching remotely, have made progress—but she says, half-jokingly, that the only thing she's better at this year is technology.

Wisconsin high school math teacher Kristen Brown thinks teacher evaluation is unnecessary this year.

"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," she told Education Week, adding that teachers shouldn't have to prove that they're effective educators during a pandemic.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, almost half the states that have released evaluation guidance are still measuring student growth as part of teacher evaluations. Many teachers are undergoing formal observations and evaluations, which can affect their job security.

Helping Kids Find Their Way

Besides pushing teachers and students out of classrooms, the COVID-19 pandemic has also wreaked havoc on students' grades. In the Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas and one of the largest in the nation, 42% of students failed a class during its first six-week online grading period, the Houston Chronicle reported. In the 2019–2020 school year, only 26% of students failed a class during the first nine-week, in-person grading period.

Houston isn't the only city that's struggling. School districts coast to coast have seen surges in Ds and Fs, Chalkbeat reports, even as teachers have overhauled their approach to grading. Teachers understand that their students are frustrated, and they're trying to keep them encouraged. They've let kids redo assignments, granted kids extensions, and accepted incomplete work in the hope that students could complete the work later. But despite these adjustments, kids still worry about how they'll fix their low grades.

Feedback, Not Evaluation

Teachers need more coaching and support. Kids need to socialize with friends in class; many find it hard to focus sitting alone in front of a screen. Some students have disappeared altogether.

Clearly, schools are facing bigger issues than evaluation. Here are a few ways that schools could help teachers instead of simply monitoring them.

  • Instead of formal observations, schools could offer teachers feedback from colleagues or coaches with remote teaching experience.
  • Teachers should ask their students to give feedback. Kids like being asked what they think, and they typically have plenty to say about how remote learning is (or isn't) working.
  • If schools insist on conducting evaluations, observers shouldn't judge what teachers are doing. Rather, they should focus on ways to improve teachers' skills and strategies.
  • Teachers should ask observers how they'll be graded and what criteria they'll be graded on.
  • If teachers aren't looking forward to this process, administrators probably aren't, either. The usual evaluation format doesn't seamlessly transfer to remote learning, and many evaluators haven't been trained in remote education. Observations take up valuable time that might be better spent on more pressing issues, such as closing the learning gap when kids return to school.

Support, Not Grades

Many students are stressed and struggling this year as they cycle between remote learning, in-school learning, and a hybrid approach. Many of them are failing classes. Worse, thousands of them aren't attending school at all.

Given the circumstances, maybe grades aren't as important as support and feedback. A few suggestions:

  • Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had warned schools not to count on standardized tests being waived for another year, NPR reported in September 2020, but that could change. Statewide tests are expensive, they stress students out, and they might not be valid, given how attendance is currently fluctuating. Whether they can even be administered remotely is uncertain. If schools have the choice, they should forego testing and concentrate on planning for next year.
  • Teachers have adjusted to their usual practices and grading procedures to help kids succeed. They've identified what kids really need to know and have given them extended time to accomplish their work. These strategies need to continue.
  • Student mental health continues to be a growing concern. Teachers need more coaching on connecting with students and how to help them interact with one another in class. And it's not too early for schools to figure out how to provide mental health assistance to kids.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

As the new coronavirus vaccines roll out, it brings hope that kids will be back to school sometime next year. Though that idea brings absolute joy, it also means that schools have a lot of work to do. They must develop programs to help kids catch up and recoup academic losses or fix poor grades, if necessary.

When kids return to the classroom, schools will need to use diagnostic testing to determine where they are academically and what kind of instruction they will need. They will need to find kids who left school and encourage them to come back. They will need to access mental health services. They will need to plan for school activities and sports.

Further Reading: Student Evaluation: The Pathway to Success

Right now, teachers and kids need support and feedback, not judgment. That way, schools can devise creative ways to address students' needs when they come back to the classroom.