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Actionable Feedback to Inform Practice


In examining human capital management (that phrase that I so dislike) in other fields of work, most contain processes and organizational structures for consistently evaluating the job performance of employees and providing opportunities for managers and their staff to engage in professional exchanges about the performance.  In addition, most provide some form of feedback to the employee by the manager, that is given in order for the staff member to identify areas in which performance needs to strengthen or improve, as well as to outline career advancement opportunities based on performance strengths.  This is called actionable feedback, or feedback that leads to actions by the employee, with input from the manager.

You can find many definitions of feedback loops online; all refer to a process that involves an effect related to a cause or set of causal circumstances; most also include references to a process through which feedback results in improvement.  Feedback loops can have positive or negative results; as a manager, the focus is on keeping results positive.

There is a field of research around feedback loops; I am far from being an expert in this area and won’t pretend otherwise, but examining the research can be quite interesting, particularly when juxtaposed against what we typically find in teaching.   There are various models and images of feedback loops:  you can access some of these here.  https://www.google.com/search?q=feedback+loops+images&hl=en&tbo=u&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=Pp23ULK0J8PA0QHS3oDABg&ved=0CCsQsAQ&biw=1138&bih=497

For me, this whole process became increasingly important and interesting as my career in corporate progressed after I left the K12 classroom.  I was struck by the vast difference between the way in which I was evaluated, and career guidance offered to me, as a teacher and the same as a professional in an organization.  I will try to summarize these two very different processes below.

As a teacher

I taught in a middle school, grades four to eight, with about 65 teachers, a principal, and an assistant principal.  Our contract called for tenured teachers to be evaluated twice annually and non-tenured teachers to undergo this process four times a year.  The system of evaluation used involved a checklist that, as a union negotiator, I had had input into developing.  The checklist outlined various performance areas as well as more concrete aspects of my teaching, like the order and organization of the library, and my classroom management skills – in other words, how my students behaved.

The basic process was this:

  • Principal and assistant principal divided the staff into two groups, with each evaluating one group that year
  • My evaluator informed me when he (both were men) was likely to come to my class to observe
  • Evaluator came to class and stayed for the period; received any handouts used that day in class
  • Evaluator used the union-approved checklist to document my performance
  • Within two weeks after the observation, I received a copy of the checklist and a request to either sign and return it, or to schedule an appointment to discuss it
  • If signed and returned, we were done; if I requested an appointment, we met and discussed the checklist results (not the performance) typically. No career guidance was provided and no suggestions were made as to where I might go to learn how to improve my performance in designated areas

Any professional learning opportunities that I engaged in during the year were not required to be tied to my evaluation.  The only opportunity that I had to provide any details about my class or content taught was in the post-evaluation review that occurred if I requested it.  My evaluations were overwhelmingly positive, and there was little in the way of where or how to develop my practice further.

I often found myself hungry for information about where and how I could shape my own growth as a teacher; many of my colleagues felt the same way.  We did things like form study groups for courses that we took as a cohort.  We scheduled and attended some professional learning sessions together (we were required to complete a set number of hours of PD annually)

As a staff member in a corporate environment

In the corporate environment, I was assigned a manager who was responsible for my performance reviews, professional growth, career advancement.  While my management structure changed during re-organizations, I knew who my manager was, this was consistent, and there was an actual ‘reporting line’ so that I was a member of a ‘family’ of employees reporting up to the same senior officers.

As a manager myself, my staff existed in a similar structure.  I was absolutely held accountable as a manager for the professional development of my staff; there were processes that my staff and I engaged in and documented to provide evidence of this annually.  I was also held accountable for the career advancement of my staff.  If a manager’s staff never advanced, questions were asked and you better have had evidence to support your managerial decisions.

Evaluation typically occurred this way:

  • Manager and employee annually set objectives cascaded from the manager to the employee; these were agreed to and signed off on by both
  • Manager and employee met every two weeks if not weekly; during these meetings, employee provided information about progress towards annual objectives, asked for assistance in areas where issues were encountered, and provided evidence of work completed and next steps.  Employees also suggested new projects, ideas, etc. to help advance goals.  These meetings were either thirty or sixty minutes in length, dependent upon need.  Feedback was a key part of these meetings, positive feedback as well as feedback to help identify sticking points and how to move past them
  • Quarterly, manager and employee met for formal evaluation.  They reviewed the annual objectives, and if changes needed to be made due to changes in corporate goals, this was done.  The employee provided evidence of progress towards goals prior to this meeting; together, this evidence was reviewed and feedback was given to help employee move forward
  • Annual review:  this was a very complex process in which they employee and manager discussed the annual performance and came to agreement on the evidence that proved progress towards goals
    • Goal progression was rated throughout the year – on target or off target –
    • In annual review, employee documented evidence of progress as well as areas in which progress was exceeded
    • Manager reviewed documentation and added comments to support, or disagree with, the employee evidence
    • Manager and employee met to discuss documented results and feedback
    • Employee e-signed results; manager e-signed results and provided summative feedback and comments in writing; employee could then disagree with these in writing and this became part of the record
    • Managers used these results in calibrating employee against employees in similar positions to determine annual raises

Throughout the year, I received feedback from my manager, and provided it to my employees.  This feedback was used to plan professional learning, career advancement, and to make needed corrections along the way.  This process was invaluable in providing assistance to the employee about performance and career growth.  It was essential for the manager and the company in capacity planning as well as individual advancement for employees.

Please note that in my corporate experience, feedback was not one-way, but bi-directional; employee and manager had frequent exchanges about practice and progress. Depending on the  manager, the employee had the opportunity to provide feedback to the manager as well.

Think about how this might play out in teaching.  What if we had differentiated staffing structures, utilizing teacher leaders, who played a role in aiding administrators in meaningful evaluation of staff.  Teacher leaders could conduct model lessons and then observe colleagues in practice, offering feedback for growth and development.  What if we had differentiated staffing structures like those suggested by Art Wise and Molly Lasagna (see last week’s blog) with multiple teachers in one classroom, observing and learning from one another.  The opportunities for feedback and self-correction, acknowledgement of strengths, and career advancement could be so rich.

My own belief, after having lived in both systems, is that this kind of feedback is invaluable.  I grew constantly – and was constantly challenged to grow still more – as a result of this process in my corporate career; in my teaching career, that encouragement came from within myself and there was no place to which I could advance, formally.  For teaching not to utilize these processes holds us back as professionals and as a profession, in my view.  Actionable feedback is one of the structure that I believe needs to be implemented in order for us to advance as a profession.  Fortunately, a number of the evaluation systems’ models that we are seeing emerge do include this process, and will, hopefully, stay true to it as implementation occurs.

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