Sarah Rosskamm is the President and Founder of Hendy Avenue Consulting. Before starting Hendy Avenue, Sarah was the Senior Director of Talent Development for Achievement First, a network of 34 achievement-gap closing charter schools in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. During this time, Sarah was responsible for the creation of the AF Teacher Career Pathway, designed to develop, recognize, and reward excellent teachers. Previously, Sarah was also the founding Executive Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Policy Center and Research Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Commission on Training America’s Teachers. Sarah also taught 5th grade as a founding member of KIPP’s San Francisco Bay Academy and 1st grade as a Teach for America corps member. Sarah lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons. Together, they lead the education non-profit, Revive the Dream.
Introduction and Giving Teacher’s a Voice
Thriving Schools: Sarah, to begin, could you tell us how you made the transition from classroom teacher into education policy and consulting?
Sarah: I really found my love for education while I was in the classroom. But I also had a few pivotal moments that made me frustrated and feeling like I could help address larger systemic issues. The first of those experiences was the fact that I didn’t have anyone from my school come visit my classroom until April of my first year. I remember my students asking me, “Who’s that lady in the back of the room?” And I had to say, “Boys and girls, this is our principal.” Clearly, I felt like I wasn’t developing and becoming the teacher I wanted to be.
Thriving Schools: And the second experience?
Sarah: The second experience was seeing how the veteran teachers on my first grade team (having over 20 years of classroom experience) weren’t given a voice in making key decisions. For instance, our school made a decision regarding curriculum for English Language Learners and they felt fearful to speak up and advise against the decision. And in any other field, veterans with this much experience would be sought out for their opinions and experience. So these were both signs to me that there’s got to be a better way to treat and value our best teachers.
I really found my love for education while I was in the classroom. But I also had a few pivotal moments that made me frustrated and feeling like I could help address larger systemic issues.
Creating Evaluation Frameworks and Their Essential Components
Thriving Schools: Sarah, you’ve put a ton of time into thinking about and creating evaluation frameworks. Can you tell us why the phrase “evaluation” makes us educators cringe? And how to see value in the process?
Sarah: I think the key is designing an evaluation system with development at its heart. Let me be clear – I don’t think there’s value in evaluation just for evaluation’s sake. Instead, we should be gathering information and data in order to help our staff get better. You have to be focused on frequent observations with high-quality feedback and coaching. And too often, it’s the opposite – people are getting evaluated for compliance or tenure purposes.
Thriving Schools: What are the most important components of an evaluation framework?
Sarah: In doing this with clients, we usually start by defining what excellence looks like at their schools. From there, we try to figure out the ways we’d measure those items. This list always includes things like student achievement and classroom observations, and sometimes includes items like student, peer, and parent surveys. It might also include college readiness metrics or other items that a school indicates are really important to their culture.
Thriving Schools: And where does the coaching and development (that you mentioned needs to be at the heart of such a framework) fit into this?
Sarah: It needs to be considered throughout the entire design conversation. For instance, when you’re thinking about classroom observations, you’d consider the length and frequency with which they occur and how the feedback is delivered. And each of these design decisions are made with the goal of helping teachers get better. So you can’t just make a decision for your observation cycle and then lay a plan for development on top of it. Development needs to be at the heart of these decisions.
Examples of Strong Evaluation Rubrics
Thriving Schools: So let’s switch gears and discuss examples of strong evaluation frameworks! What do strong evaluation frameworks have in common?
Sarah: I’m a big fan of short yet frequent lesson observations. Paul Bambrick’s work has influenced many of the decisions we make in this respect – having very clear, bite-sized, and immediate action steps. Also, it’s important that during debrief conversations, teachers are making immediate changes for their next lesson and are practicing those changes with their coach. In order to facilitate that, rubrics should be short and student-outcomes oriented. I think it’s also helpful, then, that you have a rubric that can be used across all teachers, subjects, and grades.
Thriving Schools: What’s an example of an evaluation rubric that achieves these items?
Sarah: I think the TNTP Core Rubric is really strong. When school leaders first see it, they often think it’s too short and must be missing things. But when they go out and observe classrooms, they almost always agree the rubric includes the behaviors they want to be focusing on. And again, by narrowing in on only the most important items, the rubric makes it easier to provide high-impact feedback and development. Here’s what the culture of learning component looks like:
(Note: Culture of Learning is just 1 of the 4 performance areas covered by the TNTP Core Rubric. You can access the entire rubric by clicking HERE.)
Thriving Schools: What else do you like to see in evaluation rubrics?
Sarah: There’s so much good work that’s been done on rubrics, that I recommend finding one that smart people have already created and tested rather than creating one from scratch. After you’ve found one that fits, you can work on aligning it to your school’s culture and vision of excellence. Check out our recent blog post on key elements of effective rubrics. In it, we highlight the importance of choosing a rubric that is 1) short, clear, and focused on the highest leverage teacher actions, 2) focuses on student actions in the classroom, and 3) aligned to rigorous content standards.
Thriving Schools: Can you give us any examples of rubrics that have evolved over the last few years?
Sarah: I think the Achievement First rubric is an example of one that’s made a lot of improvement. When we first started, it was a very lengthy document. But they’ve made it more condensed and more student-outcomes focused. And that’s the way I see the best systems moving!
(Note: Investment is just 1 of 5 Essentials of Instruction that is rated on the Achievement First Rubric. You can access the entire rubric by clicking HERE.)
Thriving Schools: Sarah, how do we reconcile the fact that these are still several page documents, and that we’re trying to provide short and more frequent feedback? What best practices do you have for using these rubrics?
Sarah: First, the rubric should be a school’s one definition of excellence. There shouldn’t be different tools floating around with different expectations for teaching. Second, it’s important for everyone in the building to be familiar with and invested in the language of the rubric. Teachers should have a thorough introduction and training on the rubric so they know what is expected of them. It’s also important for teacher development trainings, department or grade level meetings, and other teacher communications to continuously reference back to the rubric so the language becomes second nature. Third, the observations need to be short. In the past, observations would often be an hour long but only occur once a year. Today, we’re seeing the value of 20 minute observations every week or two. An observer may not be able to see every indicator on the rubric during every observation, but because he or she is observing so frequently, the teacher receives feedback on all parts of the rubric at some point throughout the year.
Thriving Schools: Any other closing thoughts on intelligently implementing rubrics?
Sarah: I think it’s really important for teams to appreciate the training and calibration that these evaluation systems require. We work with schools that have really great leaders, and they still end up with different ideas of how strong the teaching was. So you have to take the time, and it does take a lot of it, to make sure leaders are learning to apply the same definition of excellence. And the amazing part of this is that this ends up being amazing professional learning for school leaders! A ton of learning happens when leaders start discussing whether a teacher earned a “2” or a “3” in a particular rubric area because they’re forced to discuss evidence and the elements of strong instruction! At Achievement First, we had 100% of our school leaders saying that going through this process was extremely beneficial to their own professional learning and we’re seeing similar results at other schools who invest in observer-calibration activities. So to the school and system leaders out there, please take the time to regularly practice observation and feedback skills across your schools – your teachers deserve it!