Equitable and Growth-Focused Teacher Evaluations

Submitted by: By Aparna Sundaram & Lindsay Prendergast, Ed.D.
Appeared on the ET Journal Spring Issue 2024


In today’s challenging educational climate, cultivating a school cul- ture where teachers feel valued and supported should be one of our most urgent leadership priorities. Therefore, examining best practices around teacher evaluations, and recognizing what impedes their proper implementation, is essential. Executing evaluations as a practice done solely to comply with policies, rather than as a consid- ered process to advance both teachers and their students, can leave teachers disconnected from their professional practices and feeling unseen. Providing teachers the opportunity to grow and experience success depends on leaders’ ability to nurture a collaborative culture of professionalism, transparency, and respect. Two proven practices that contribute to such a culture are teacher evaluator training around unconscious bias and effective implementation of a clear, agreed-upon framework for talking about teaching and learning.

The Role of Unconscious Bias in Equitable Teacher Evaluations
Before engaging in fair, productive conversations with teachers about instructional practice, leaders must recognize how unconscious bias can influence their own interpretation of those practices. Biases are mental shortcuts that we all use, and unconscious or implicit biases can guide our behaviors without us being aware of their impact. As Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald explain in Blindpsot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2016), “the signal property of the mind does a great deal of its work automatically, unconsciously, and unintention- ally” and they stress that this is “ordinary mental functioning.” To be human is to have biases. However, for those in supervisory positions, it’s crucial to accept the existence of unconscious biases and consider methods for mitigating their impact. While many types of bias exist, a few are especially pervasive in teacher evaluations and can impede meaningful professional collaboration towards growth.

Affinity bias is the tendency to be influenced by personal preferences for specific practices or behaviors similar to our own and that we perceive as favorable. For example, administrators who tend to work extra-long hours may have less favorable opinions of teachers who work regular hours, or an extroverted administrator may believe an extroverted teacher is an inherently better math teacher. In fact, the two things are actually independent of each other. Banaji and Green- wald note, “Economists, sociologists and psychologists have confirmed time and again that the social group to which a person belongs can be isolated as a definitive cause of the treatment he or she receives” (2016). This does not just refer to negative treatment, but includes preferential treatment as well.

Attribution bias is the inclination to make judgments about behaviors as though they were inherent personality traits. If someone is success- ful at something, we may downplay it as luck rather than their actions, and failures may be linked to their personality rather than outside fac- tors. For example, a leader may attribute teacher performance, such as the ability to manage student behavior, as inherent to their char- acter (disinterest in building connections with students, for example) rather than situational context. On the other hand, they may attrib- ute a teacher’s ability to connect well with students to her younger age, not recognizing she has worked hard to develop communication, trust-building, and listening skills geared toward adolescents.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret information in a man- ner that confirms or supports pre-existing beliefs about a teacher, even when the evidence is to the contrary. The horn or halo effect is a subset of confirmation bias. For example, with the horn effect, if an 18 EARCOS Triannual Journal observer’s first interaction with a teacher is negative, he may ignore positive attributes during the classroom observation in favor of in- formation that supports this negative belief. Conversely, if a supervi- sor has a terrific first conversation with a new teacher, that teacher may benefit from the halo effect, where only positive attributes are noted.

Cultural bias is one of the most insidious biases in our particular line of work. This type of bias stems from differences in cultural back- grounds between the observer and the teacher that may manifest as language proficiency, accent, teaching style, or cultural references. For example, an observer may more favorably evaluate a teacher who uses instructional resources representative of the observer’s own culture, while another observer may perceive a teacher as less equipped for success because their accent is less familiar.

Collectively, these forms of bias present important behaviors and attitudes that may be “blind spots” for all teacher evaluations. In the pursuit of equitable, growth-focused evaluations that support teach- ers and are grounded in trust, empathy, and transparency, leaders have an opportunity to proactively take steps towards mitigating the effects of bias.

Unconscious Bias in Evaluations Cannot Be Cured, But It Can Be Addressed
Once educators acknowledge the influence of bias on teacher eval- uations, the next step is to commit to addressing it. We have found meaningful impact by applying the following strategies:

Ensure Annual Implicit Bias Training for Anyone Conducting Observations
Regular training brings the unconscious to the conscious level and heightens awareness of our own proclivities before formal observa- tions occur. The creators of Harvard’s IAT (Implicit Association Test), working in tandem with other researchers, have noted things we can do to create “elastic changes” (Banaji & Greenwald, 2016). For example, one researcher asked college men and women to spend a few minutes thinking about the attributes of a strong woman before completing the test: What can she do? What are her hobbies? This simple mental exercise decreased the association that male = strong on the IAT measurement. The researchers found that repeated ap- plications of modest (low demand of time or cost) interventions could lessen persistent stereotypes and associations.

Utilize Common Language Around Teaching and Learning
A school staff may include educators with diverse backgrounds and levels of experience. Establishing a common language across every grade and subject that describes teaching practices, not teachers, is an important early step that fosters transparency, limits the influence of unconscious bias, and ensures validity of evaluations. Using the Danielson Framework for Teaching (2022), for example, provides a universal guide from which observations may be conducted. A schoolwide framework allows teachers to trust that they and their observer hold a mutual understanding of what practices will be evaluated - no more “mystery observations.”

Train Observers to Collect Accurate Evidence, Not Opinions
No matter the level of an observer’s expertise, there is a risk for qualifying evidence in an instructional observation with personal opinion. Evaluators must first recognize the distinction between evidence and opinion. Thereafter, ensure that all data gathered in an observation (what the teacher and students say and do, for exam- ple) is strictly objective, free from opinions that may be influenced by unconscious bias. For example, consider the difference between an opinion statement, “the students were not engaged,” versus the evidence of “nine of the 17 students were on their cell phones dur- ing the teacher’s instruction.” The latter presents data that opens a conversation around engagement rather than a potential discrep- ancy between what teacher and observer consider as the definition of “not engaged.”

Calibrate Observations Frequently to Ensure Consistency
With the presence of a system-wide framework describing teaching practice, the next step is to ensure everyone utilizing the frame- work applies it consistently. This requires those observing instruc- tion to periodically calibrate, or conduct observations of the same teacher(s) and determine performance levels, together. Engaging in this practice often illuminates the presence of unconscious bias, which allows observers to then recenter their work on the explicit language in the framework. Additionally, periodic calibration ensures the validity of any data gathered from performance levels that may inform high-stakes decisions such as planning professional develop- ment.

Leading Change in Teacher Evaluations
Traditional teacher evaluations carry an inherent implication the teacher must change their practice to improve. To create an en- vironment in which teachers feel inspired to grow, and trusted to take risks, we propose the change begins with school leaders. By ex- amining the influence unconscious bias plays in evaluations, leaders can improve their own practices and enhance the overall learning environment. Further, by adopting and communicating a schoolwide framework for teaching and learning, evaluations become conver- sations around practice in which teachers feel respected and sup- ported. It is through these deliberate actions that we can transform our educational culture into one that truly nurtures and celebrates the whole teacher, thereby enriching our students’ learning experi- ence and advancing the educational mission of the school.


>> Read more on the ET Journal Spring Issue 2024 page 18