Evaluating Foreign Language Teachers in DCPS… hay problemas.

One thing I don’t often hear in the debate about teacher evaluation is how evaluations should be differentiated depending on the level or content area of each teacher.   People argue about the validity of value-added test data and who should conduct evaluations, but public discourse doesn’t seem to include conversations about evaluating different types of teachers differently. I want to discuss this within the context of the evaluation system with which I am most familiar: IMPACT in DC Public Schools.

IMPACT relies on the same rubric, the Teaching and Learning Framework (TLF), to evaluate all of its teachers. The only exception to this sameness is for Special Education teachers, whose performance is judged by slightly different rubrics depending on whether they are inclusion teachers (working with students as part of a General Education classroom) or pull-out (working with students in a Special Education-only class).

There are multiple reasons to rely on one main rubric to evaluate teachers regardless of what they teach. First, teachers can’t make the argument that one group has it easier or harder than another. Second, people often say (and I agree) that “good teaching is just good teaching”; in other words, that certain standards of excellence are the same across the board. I agree with both of those.

This becomes more complicated when you consider more specialized areas like art, music, physical education, and foreign language. Instruction looks different in these classes, primarily because (at least in the case of the first three) they tend to be more than usually student-led, so it’s hard to see instruction in the usual sense (a teacher presenting information and leading students in practice of it).

As a former Spanish teacher, I take most interest in how DCPS evaluates its foreign language teachers. The main point of contention is over the amount of the target language that teachers should use during any given class.

Let me take a moment to give you some information about my background so that you can understand my perspective. My best foreign language teacher was my 8th grade French I teacher, who spoke ONLY in French unless English was absolutely essential for explaining a complicated grammatical concept.  My worst foreign language teacher was my French II teacher who taught mostly in English, resulting in a loss of oral proficiency for me that I have never gotten back even after taking French into college.

From my perspective, the best foreign language teachers always speak the target language to the fullest extent possible. Admittedly, I was not good at doing this while I taught. I felt that English was necessary just for the sake of discipline – my students tended to give up or zone out REALLY fast the moment they felt lost. My biggest regret from teaching is that I didn’t speak enough Spanish in class.

That being said: how should the acknowledged benefit of using the target language factor in to a foreign language teacher’s evaluation? Should there be a rubric specifically for foreign language teachers? (I think so.) And if there were, how do you evaluate the teacher’s use of the target language? IMPACT gives teachers a score between 1 and 4 for each standard on the TLF – 1 means ineffective; 4 means highly effective. Would a foreign language rubric standard for use of the target language assign a percentage to each score? For instance: 4 = 90-100% of the class takes place in the target language, 3 = 80%, 2 = 50%, 1 = less than 50%.

There are two main problems with the IMPACT system as it applies to foreign language teachers.

  1. The TLF rubric does not allow for an evaluation of the teacher’s use of the target language (arguably the most important component of a foreign language classroom).
  2.  Foreign language teachers are being evaluated on their use of the target language even though the rubric says nothing about that.

A friend of mine teaching Spanish in a struggling school recently received her scores from her Master Educator evaluation. Apparently, use of the target language falls into Teach 2: Explain Content Clearly. Here is the exact language used to explain a rating of a 3 (effective):

The following best describes what is observed:

  • Explanations of content are clear and coherent, and they build student understanding of content.
  • The teacher uses developmentally appropriate language and explanations.
  • The teacher gives clear, precise definitions and uses specific academic language as appropriate.
  • The teacher emphasizes key points when necessary.
  • When an explanation is not effectively leading students to understand the content, the teacher adjusts quickly and uses an alternative way to effectively explain the concept.
  • Students ask relatively few clarifying questions because they understand the explanations. However, they may a number of extension questions because they are engaged in the content and eager to learn more about it.

As you can see, because this is the same rubric used to evaluate every general education teacher in the city, there is no mention of using the target language in a foreign language classroom. You could easily make the argument that, from one perspective, it makes more sense to use English in order to score highly here – that is more likely than the target language to result in students asking “relatively few clarifying questions” and explanations of content that are “clear and coherent”.

My friend, who I know to be an EXCELLENT teacher, received a score of a 2 for this standard. Although her Master Educator noted the presence of all of the above points in my friend’s lesson, the ME explained that “our goal for a beginning level language class is to be using the target language 80% of the time”, and apparently that is what they have to see in order to give a teacher a 3.  

Sounds like a great goal; no arguments there. But it’s not fair to impose that standard on teachers without making it very clear to them first and establishing it in writing as the rule. Giving my friend a 2 implies that the ME observed the following (the criteria for a 2):

  • Explanations are generally clear and coherent, with a few exceptions, but they may not be entirely effective in building student understanding of content.
  • Some language and explanations may not be developmentally appropriate.
  • The teacher may sometimes give definitions that are not completely clear or precise, or sometimes may not use academic language when it is appropriate to do so.
  • The teacher may only sometimes emphasize key points when necessary, so that students are sometimes unclear about the main ideas of the content.
  • When an explanation is not effectively leading students to understand the concept, the teacher may sometimes move on or re-explain in the same way rather than provide an effective alternative explanation.
  • Students may ask some clarifying questions showing that they are confused by the explanations.

These descriptions are significantly less flattering than those for a 3, and earning a 2 means that you are “minimally effective” at delivering content clearly. Well, my friend’s students consistently perform well on their tests (which my friend writes, and I assure you, they are rigorous assessments). It seems improbable that students would perform well on an assessment if their teacher wasn’t delivering content very clearly. It’s unfair to give a score that misrepresents a teacher, especially when the rubric lists evidence for that score that was NOT observed.

My friend acknowledges, like I do, the benefits of speaking as much of the target language as possible, and there’s no doubt that she does it more than I do. She engages her students in conversation every day, which gives them the opportunity to use the language themselves (which one could argue is more important than hearing the teacher use the language). But my friend doesn’t think it’s fair to assess teachers on an invisible, unwritten, and uncommunicated standard. If DCPS wants its foreign language teachers to take their professional growth seriously (which is one of the reasons IMPACT exists), then it needs to provide them with more reasonable feedback and resources. My friend received no suggestions for how to work more of the target language into her instruction, so not only was she penalized for something that isn’t in the rubric, but she was also left without means of improvement.

That’s not what teacher evaluation should be about, and that’s why there are so many good teachers who get defensive about it. The system is well-intentioned – I know this first-hand – but when it’s executed in this way, it creates more enemies than friends… and that’s not productive for adults OR for kids.


About educationescritora

I'm a former high school Spanish teacher and central office employee. I believe that excellent public education will be a catalyst for positive social change in our country and that we cannot wait any longer to deliver the teachers, knowledge, and skills that our students need.
This entry was posted in DC Public Schools, Foreign Language Education, Teacher Quality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Evaluating Foreign Language Teachers in DCPS… hay problemas.

  1. Thank you for writing this editorial…si, hay problemas

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