Last week at the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) Heads of School meeting, two sessions provided an interesting juxtaposition. On Monday Tim Fish from the McDonogh School (MD) presented an overview of the Folio faculty evaluation system developed there and now being used by a growing group of schools. Tuesday morning we watched the film The Finland Phenomenon and had a Skype session with Tony Wagner. Actually, the juxtaposition was more than interesting. It was almost jarring, and I am just starting to reconcile the issue.
Folio is a highly systematized system of evaluation which stresses professional growth. Cornerstones of the process include personal reflection, ongoing goals, classroom observation, and multi-dimensional feedback, all occurring annually. A key is informed and honest conversation. The software helps make it more manageable. I very much like what I heard in the presentation. The new system I put in place at St. John’s has many similar features, but without the nice technology packaging.
Then we watched The Finland Phenomenon. To summarize: for the past few years Finland has led the world in multiple measures of academic excellence, and we need to learn from them. While the film made many compelling points, a comment in the Skype session afterwards is what struck me. Wagner told us that Finland has no formal teacher evaluation system. Instead, teachers are greatly trusted.
I imagined myself reporting to my board of trustees that I had decided to eliminate our evaluation system. They are wonderfully supportive, but that would have been pushing my luck way too far. Besides, it’s not something I would do, as I believe an effective evaluation and growth program is essential to school improvement.
Before I go anywhere else, I must say I understand the myriad problems with many evaluation systems. First and foremost, the entire process evokes dread for most people. Having once suffered as the target of a poorly done evaluation, I know the scars it can leave. I went into the next one fearfully; and while it went fine, I suspect that lessened the experience. Another issue is that in many places the process is little more than a checklist completed after a cursory observation; there is no reflection and subsequent planning for improvement. Consequently, it honors neither the teacher’s individual qualities nor the institution’s higher ideals. Finally, when done right, the process is extremely intensive and time consuming.
So what makes for an effective system? The highest of standards must be articulated and shared; and everyone must strive to meet them, with the desire to improve being the default mindset. Tied to that notion, rather than being used punitively, the system must function in a way that fosters reflection and growth. This necessitates trust and optimism. In many ways, it should resemble a wonderful classroom.
In an ideal situation, the level of collaboration would have colleagues making this occur organically, and poor performers would not survive, mainly because their peers would not stand for it. But teachers are accustomed to working in professional isolation, the lords of their classroom fiefdoms. So we’re talking about shifting engrained school culture. And that is where Finland has a distinct advantage. Besides the cultural homogeneity, a teacher cannot take over a classroom without having undergone master’s degree level preparation, much of which involves classroom observation and analysis, a process that continues throughout one’s career. While the evaluation system may not be formal, in reality it is intense and continuous…and very welcome.
This calls to mind Jim Collins’ admonition in Good to Great (passé, but apropos): “First who…then what.” More than any system or lack thereof, what matters most is having the right people. If you really want to fulfill your mission, they should serve as the true embodiment of your mission. Those will be your best teachers—the ones kids want to grow up to be just like.