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Back to school: How to measure a good teacher

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Newman was leery, especially when her assistant principal pushed her to not only incorporate "quick writes" – five-minute written reflections by students – at the end of each lesson, but to have her students themselves create a rubric to score those quick writes. After all, she pointed out, these were 7-year-olds she was working with.

"I thought he was crazy," says Newman of her response to her boss's explanation of a district shift to "student ownership." In turn, he pointed out that in the new observation rubric, one whole column talks about having students take initiative.

But, Newman now admits, the results exceeded her wildest expectations and caused her to rethink ways to push her students even more. Her students sorted the quick-write cards and talked about their common characteristics, and then put those characteristics on a chart under scores of 0, 1, 2, or 3. They gave higher scores to the cards that used math vocabulary and a full explanation, and low scores when not enough support was given.

"Sometimes we underestimate what kids can do," Newman says, noting that she's shared the experience with other teachers, some of whom are now trying the same things. "Once I made that shift and saw what this looks like for 7-year-olds, I saw what it could look like for 6-year-olds. I told people, it's not just pretend."

Newman says her classroom learning culture moved from good to "incredible. And it was all based on the observation feedback we got."

It's not easy, though, she says, for Type A teachers used to only being praised: "The psychology of the shift we've undergone has been one of the hardest things for teachers."

Last year, teacher evaluation scores of 71.5 out of 100 – what might seem like barely a C grade to most teachers – actually put teachers in the top 11 percent, says Newman, but it was tough for them to initially see that.

Many teachers in Hillsborough County are, like Newman, coming to view the evidence-based feedback as a gift, not a threat. And it helps that the district involved teachers in the planning process from the beginning, and got the local union to sign off on it.

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