Rethinking the Possibilities of Strength-Based Teacher Evaluation Systems

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With all of the time, effort and money being poured into teacher evaluation systems, the outcomes of students from underrepresented populations have not changed enough to see that what we are doing is working. Only 61 percent of English learners, the fastest growing group in the U.S., are graduating and students with disabilities, American Indian and Alaskan Americans, Black students, students living in poverty, and Hispanic students, respectively, are not faring much better (US Department of Education).

What makes this problem more and more urgent, using data from the US Census Bureau, is that the very groups that are doing poorly are growing at a rapid rate and many predict that they will be our majority population by 2020.


What are our teacher evaluation systems missing? Given all of the differences in our student populations, it is certainly not that all students from underrepresented groups are doing poorly or that all students from dominant groups are doing well. There is another way to think about the differences between students that often elude us – the difference between students who already possess school-matched language and literacy practices and the large and growing number who need to learn these.

Students who possess language and literacy practices at their grade level regardless of their family’s income, language they speak, races they represent, and so forth have cracked the literacy or school language code that is needed for school success. They have had years of observing their family and community members using literacy, are reared in homes where school readiness and literacy practices are enacted regularly and over and over and over again with the family’s hope that their child will possess these language and literacy skills and carry them like a literacy suitcase from home, to school, in school, into the community and so forth. On the other hand, there are a number of students that do not possess these academic language or school language skills and they need to learn these while attending our schools. While caring and nurturing families are typically bringing up students from these homes and communities, the focus of development is distinct from that of students who come from school-matched language experiences. And, because such students are the majority population in many schools, now is time to reexamine and change our practices to match the students we actually serve.

How does this concern connect with our evaluation systems? It doesn’t and that should be our biggest concern. Rather, we tend to measure teachers’ performance based on their adherence to the curriculum and standards assuming that these are the just-right measures of performance. We have to change our focus if we are ever going to address the real needs of our students.

In the United States, the federal definition of the abilities that an English learner must obtain to be considered proficient in English sheds some light on the type of language and literacy that is needed by ALL of the nation’s students. It includes the following:

(i) the ability to meet the State’s proficient level of achievement on State assessments; 

(ii) the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms…

(iii) the opportunity to participate fully in society (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

To remedy the differences between students who carry academic language like a literacy suitcase wherever they go (in school, at home, and beyond) and students who are learning academic language while simultaneously attending school, we must intentionally transform the ways that we support professional growth and evaluation. To do this calls for a four-pronged system in which we show academic language learning as a:

  1. Sociocultural process grounded in our students and their families’ personal, social, cultural, and world experiences;
  2. Developmental process that calls for understanding the literacy levels of each of our students and targeting instruction a little bit beyond that level so that it is obtainable and reachable,
  3. Academic process that is built on our students’ prior learning experiences and where the learning goals are understandable; and a
  4. Cognitive process in which thinking skills are intentionally taught and practiced.

Professional growth and supportive supervision systems must be based on these four elements.


Most evaluation systems use deficit-based language to describe teacher’s levels of competence. They generally range in categories from unsatisfactory, needs improvement, proficient to exemplary with the first two categories using almost entirely deficit-based language of what teacher are NOT doing. Knowing that teachers and administrators possess academic literacy and have had little professional training or experience working with issues of difference as it relates to those needing to learn this type of literacy, how are these growth categories motivating? They are not!

Daniel Pink examined 50 years of studies from the behavioral sciences on motivation in writing his best-selling book– Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us. I heard him speak on this topic and am familiar with the research he presents. Pink shows three elements to be the most important in strengthening our performance.

  1. Having a voice in decision-making. According to the behavioral sciences, as humans we are motivated when we believe that what we say or do will be honored and valued.
  1. Getting accurate feedback and celebrating our successes. Receiving affirmation about what we are doing well is a wonderful lever to push motivation further.
  1. Knowing that we are part of something that is meaningful. Motivation requires that everyone believes and sees that there is purpose and meaning to what we are doing.

So, in addition to our rethinking our teacher evaluation systems to take into account the four elements that lead to academic literacy, we have to create systems that propel and compel our drive to succeed. In other words, we must create evaluation systems throughout the teaching and learning enterprise that are based on what we are doing that is working and we must celebrate and be honored for our successes.

Strength based categories (such as emerging, developing, enacting and integrating) that are framed around the four elements that are key for academic literacy learning and that use language that describes what we observe in a clear and precise and affirming way is what is needed, right now, to make education work.

The ideas from this blog are what ‘drove’ writing the research based book Mastering Academic Language: a framework or supporting student achievement and the Corwin TeachALL app available in the Apple Store. The content draws from two major studies done by the National Literacy Panel and Center for Research on Equity and Diversity in Education (CREDE) as well as seminal research on child development and family school partnerships with respect to diverse learners. These studies point to learning as a sociocultural, developmental, academic, and cognitive thinking-to-learn processes. When this is connected with educators’ professional growth and development and supportive evaluation systems that celebrate our successes, we have a much better chance to make education work for the very groups that need it the most.

This article was drawn from Zacarian (2013) Mastering academic language: a framework for supporting student achievement and Corwin TeachALL a research-based tool for teachers, coaches, & supervisors available in the Apple App Store.

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