When the Ohio General Assembly finally adopted changes to the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) through House Bill 362 last week, there was one positive remnant left from the original Senate Bill 229 introduced in late 2013 that does offer school districts some relief from the time-intensive process.  With the majority of teachers in in the state being expected to receive a rating of skilled or accomplished, and with those ratings being aligned with teachers who are effectively doing their jobs by demonstrating desired classroom practices and expected student growth (according to the legislators and Ohio Department of Education), schools will not be required by law to fully evaluate these teachers each and every year.

The new law reads as follows [emphasis added]:

Ohio Revised Code Section 3319.111

(2)(a) The board may evaluate each teacher who received a rating of accomplished on the teacher’s most recent evaluation conducted under this section once every three school years, so long as the teacher’s student academic growth measure, for the most recent school year for which data is available, is average or higher, as determined by the department of education.
(b) The board may evaluate each teacher who received a rating of skilled on the teacher’s most recent evaluation conducted under this section once every two years, so long as the teacher’s student academic growth measure, for the most recent school year for which data is available, is average or higher, as determined by the department of education.

(3) In any year that a teacher is not formally evaluated pursuant to division (C) of this section as a result of receiving a rating of accomplished or skilled on the teacher’s most recent evaluation, an individual qualified to evaluate a teacher under division (D) of this section shall conduct at least one observation of the teacher and hold at least one conference with the teacher.

If the school chooses to opt for this provision, instead of conducting multiple observations, walkthroughs, and conferences, the evaluator must still conduct at least one observation and hold at least one conference with the teacher.  The premise here is that those teachers should still be held accountable for maintaining their good teaching practices and monitoring them with an evaluator is the only way to do so.

I’ll put a positive spin on this and say that this type of interaction between a principal (evaluator) and teacher is the type of sound professional practice that good principals already engage in when they are given the freedom to act as the school’s instructional leader.  When you have a high-quality principal in a school who works collaboratively with teachers by engaging in professional dialogue about the best practices that are contained within the OTES rubric, teachers can receive constructive feedback and principals can identify areas in which they need to provide improved support for the teachers under their care.

Additionally, by removing the mandate to evaluate these high-quality educators each and every year, principals now have some added freedom to work more intensively with teachers who may be struggling in one or more areas.  The key to this entire process is how the individuals involved react to this opportunity.  Principals must utilize the information gathered from the observations and conferences to help connect teachers with resources, especially the human capital within their buildings, in order to promote and encourage professional growth and improvement.  Again, this is what high-quality principals have been doing for years and OTES can be a model to guide schools and principals to function in this improvement model.

From a pessimistic, and in many cases a realistic, viewpoint, the OTES system is being used as a way to label teachers with the goal of ousting those who may struggle in their current assignment.  Not only is this goal lazy on its face, but very concept of firing these teachers outright contradicts the entire foundations of our educational system.

Think about it — how do we react when students are struggling with mastering skills or concepts?  We often go above and beyond to provide additional support for those children, frequently capitalizing on the strengths of other students to provide peer support, but most often identifying additional services and interventions to guide the students toward mastery.  Nothing is more evident of this than Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law.  While we have lambasted the law’s mandatory retention component as exacerbating the long-term success of these students, the other pieces of the law distinctly try to focus on catching struggling students early on in and providing increased interventions and support.  We don’t simply identify a student who is “below grade level” in reading in first grade, label them as unsuccessful, then kick them out, do we?  Of course not, we seek to help them improve!

In this same manner, principals and teachers need to be allowed to use the OTES, still in its infancy, to help one another improve their professional practices.  Let’s be clear — OTES is not simply a means of directly improving teachers’ practices, it is also a tool that principals need to embrace as a way to improve their role as instructional leaders.  Too many people simply assume that gaining the title of principal automatically makes that individual master of all in their domain.  However, those in the field of education know that nothing could be further from the truth.

The vast majority of criticisms of schools these days are targeted at teachers and teaching practices, and the legislative talking points about OTES are centered on identifying “bad” teachers and getting them out of our schools.  But a “funny” thing has happened along the way – OTES has exposed the fact that principals aren’t infallible either, and many don’t know how to identify good teaching practices or how to provide solid instructional support that promotes professional growth by their teachers.

So again, capitalizing on this rare moment of optimism that I’m having, and looking for a way for educators to regain control of our profession, I must encourage principals and teachers to “modernize” their professional practices and forget the traditional view of schools where the principal is “the boss” and teachers are silent followers of the boss’s rules.  Instead, for the sake of our collective profession, principals and teachers must be willing to let down their guard and take a deeper look at the research-based OTES rubric that is at the heart of the observation/conference process.  Principals need to be willing to admit that they don’t know everything, let go of personal opinions about what always worked for them “when I was a teacher”, and truly follow the evidence-based rubric to drive their evaluation process.  In the same way, teachers need to understand that principals aren’t omnipotent.  Teachers must also be willing to advocate for themselves and their classroom practices, speak to principals about what support is needed, and be willing to accept help from not only the principal, but their peer teachers.

In the end, education is a profession that has strong communication and strong relationships at its foundation.  From a union standpoint, we’ve often been focused on an “us vs. them” mentality when describing the relationship between teachers and administrators.  Now, with the implementation of OTES, both principals and teachers have been unwillingly thrown into this process together and both sides need to understand and accept that we are not perfect.  Maybe, just maybe, by working together, principals and teachers can work to change the stereotypical adversarial relationship between them and focus on using this law that has been imposed upon us for our collective benefit.

Legislators wanted to use this law to fire educators.  What if we hijacked it and actually used it to our benefit?  We can only do so if principals and teachers are willing to engage in professional dialogue and begin to see themselves as co-educators and not as bosses and employees.

Can we do it?  Can we — districts, schools, principals, and teachers — take over OTES and take back control of our profession?