Sarah Rosskamm is the President and Founder of Hendy Avenue Consulting. Previously, 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. In addition, Sarah was 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 the KIPP 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 Systemic Challenges in Education
Thriving Schools: Sarah, the last time you were with us you described a number of troubling experiences you had when you first entered the teaching profession. What are the systemic challenges that make experiences like yours so common?
Sarah: For starters, we’re not making teaching the career of choice for our top college graduates. And I think that’s not happening because we don’t value and support teachers as much as we should. Additionally, the way we prepare teachers leaves a lot to be desired. We’re making improvements, but across the board, I don’t think teachers are feeling ready when they start in the classroom. Then, when they do, we don’t have enough support to build up their skills on the job. And that’s why I’m excited by a number of Teacher-in-Residence programs, because they allow teachers to learn and grow while not being fully responsible for a classroom. I’d like to see a lot more of these residency-style programs. I’d also like to see more school systems celebrating and developing excellent teachers, ultimately making it a more attractive profession for college graduates.
Thriving Schools: Anything else you’d like to mention?
Sarah: I think there’s also a lot of data out there to suggest that people are happiest in their roles when they have supportive managers. Therefore, I think the way that we’re preparing and support school leaders also needs improvement. I think we need to do a better job with helping our principals be managers of people. In other professions, you might start by managing 1 or 2 people, and gradually build that muscle and those skills over time. However, the typical principal experience is quite different. You go straight from managing no adults to managing a whole building of them.
Why Surveying Students is So Important
Thriving Schools: Today, we’re focused on helping educators design strong student surveys. Can you tell us why surveying students is so useful?
Sarah: I’m a big fan of student surveys because when I was at Achievement First we saw that our students’ impressions of teachers, when you ask the right questions, were almost always spot on. Even better than most other components of an evaluation system. So when the MET Study came to the same conclusion, we weren’t surprised at all. To add to that, I also think it’s empowering for students to have that voice. They know what’s going on – they’re the ones in the classroom every day!
The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, a 3-year study funded by the Gates Foundation, sought to determine how to best identify and promote great teaching. In its final research report, it concluded that it’s possible to identify great teaching by combining 3 types of measures: classroom observations, student surveys, and student achievement gains.
Thriving Schools: That study garnered a lot of attention a few years back. Can you help us understand why it was so misunderstood?
Sarah: I think it makes sense that teachers would be nervous when they first hear about this – evaluation could turn into a popularity contest or students would give poor ratings if they had received detention. But I think all these concerns can be addressed by how you ask the questions. For instance, you can’t ask, “Do you like this teacher?” That’s not going to work. But you can ask questions like, “Are students in this class well behaved?” or “Does my teacher continue to help me until I understand?” These are questions that are observable and objective, and as a result, provide really accurate reflections of someone’s teaching and relationship-building. Teachers who participate in student surveys also tell us the feedback is really helpful for them to learn and grow as professionals.
Examples of Student Survey Questions and Implementation
Thriving Schools: Can you give us some more examples of student survey questions?
Sarah: We have this tool on our website and you can take a look at a wide range of questions that we’ve used with other schools. But here is a sampling of some questions related to classroom management, instruction, and relationships:
Thriving Schools: How do schools best implement surveys like these?
Sarah: We think piloting new ideas like this is really important so that teachers can gain experience and familiarity with them. This shouldn’t be something you decide to do in June and then implement it right away in August with the start of school. You also calm a lot of fears by collecting feedback from faculty on how to make it better! I’ve also seen some schools use a student survey towards the end of the year for evaluation and one in the middle for more formative reasons (to help teachers understand the process and bring awareness to what they can do better).
Thriving Schools: What’s the ideal length of a survey?
Sarah: Short! It should have about 10 questions that are clear to students, aligned with school expectations, and provide helpful feedback to teachers.
Thriving Schools: Can you tell us about any groups who are making these surveys electronic and easy to administer (to better collect and analyze the data)?
Sarah: There are a few different ones. The one that we usually work with is called Panorama Education – they’re doing surveys for a ton of big districts and many CMOs. They’ve also done really good work with helping schools decide the right questions to use, collecting data, and interpreting results. You can learn more about student surveys (as well as family and peer surveys) on our blog!
Bonus! The State of Teacher Career Pathways
Thriving Schools: Final question! We know you were instrumental in helping KIPP-Austin design their teacher career pathway (which we previously reviewed on this site). Can you tell us what your latest thinking is on TCPs?
Sarah: I loved working with KIPP Austin. They really understand the importance of great teaching and have built schools that celebrate and develop excellence in teaching. Their Teacher Career Pathway is an important piece of that. But Teacher Career Pathways mean different things to different people. When I use it, I’m talking about systematically recognizing and rewarding great teachers by having multiple career stages through which a teacher can advance. Teachers advance from one stage to the next by demonstrating high performance on multiple measures of an evaluation. As they advance they have increased compensation, increased recognition and other rewards, and increased leadership opportunities – all while continuing to teach. It’s a way to say, “We value teachers and we are going to pay our excellent teachers more for the incredible impact they are having on students.” Nationally, there is a conversation going on about career pathways not having their intended impact. Unfortunately, that conversation is often talking about a simple pay-for-performance model rather than a comprehensive model of defining, developing, and celebrating excellence in teaching. We know that career pathways can have a meaningful impact on teacher retention and effectiveness because we’ve seen it in the schools where we work. We also believe it can have a national impact on creating an overall more attractive profession and we’re proud to be part of making that change.