Friday, December 23, 2016

12 Reasons To Evaluate Teachers

Like giving students standardized tests, evaluating teacher is one of those things that the vast majority of people believe that you do because, well, of course you do. Reasons. You know. Federal policy has required it, and required it with fairly specific provisions, for the past few administrations. Reformsterism focused for quite some time on collecting teacher data in order to fix education. Meanwhile, plenty of principals will tell you that doing the teacher evaluation paperwork and observations and whatever is a big fat pain in their ass and they already know plenty about the people in their building and can they please get back to work on something useful now and they've already got twelve meetings today and no time, really, to go sit and listen to Mrs. McTeachalot run through a lesson about prepositions when they already know damn well how good a job Mrs. Teachalot does.

Recently both Fordham and Bellwether thinky tanks released reports on teacher evaluations. Bellwether focused more on teacher eval as a method of steering professional development, while Fordham focused on the old reformster question, "If we're evaluating teachers, why aren't we firing more of them?" There's a conversation between the two groups of researchers here at Bellwether that is semi-interesting, and reading it got me thinking again about the actual point of evaluating teachers.

Teacher evaluation has a variety of historic and theoretical purposes.

1) Identify bad teachers so you can fire them.

Some people remain convinced that you can fire your way to excellence. Other people (like NY Governor Cuomo) are dopes who think that if 50% of your students are failing the Big Standardized Test, 50% of your teachers must suck. This is dumb on so many levels, like assuming that a 20% mortality rate at your hospital means 20% of the staff stinks, or a 10% crime rate in your city means 20% of your police are incompetent. But not only can you not fire your way to excellence, but when you make teacher evaluation a process about delivering punishment and doom, you guarantee that your staff will do everything in their power to game, cheat and otherwise work around the system. The data gathered by such a system is guaranteed crap, not helpful to anyone.

2) Identify bad teachers so you can help them.

Well, there's a thought. It's certainly cheaper than steadily churning, hiring, and training new staff. It does, however, require a real commitment to actually helping people, and it requires a culture of trust and support-- nobody wants to make themselves vulnerable by letting their weakest traits show. That means that you can have #1 or #2 on this list, but under absolutely no circumstances can you have both. This also opens the question-- if you are evaluating in order to pinpoint and assist problem teachers, exactly how often do you need to evaluate, and who really needs to be evaluated?

3) Find out where the teacher can be improved, the better to plan your professional development.

Every teacher worth his or her salt is working on something. Every decent teacher I have ever known can tell you the areas in which she needs work and improvement-- and she can probably tell you right off the top of her head because she thinks about these a lot. One of the classic traits of a less-than-stellar teacher is the insistence that she has everything down to science and there is nothing, really, that she needs to work on. The professional development challenge, of course, is designing something that meets the different needs of 100 different teachers. The other challenge is that state governments, sometimes under federal pressure, have a history of defining what professional development is acceptable. Cue the boring PD vendors and the sessions that don't serve anyone at all. The other evaluation question here is, do we really need evaluations to tell us what PD is needed? Will that really work any better than, you know, just asking?

4) Prove to taxpayers they are getting their money's worth.

A political favorite and a common reason given by reformsters demanding accountability-- the taxpayers must know what kind of teacher bang they are getting for their buck. I'm sympathetic to this point of view-- I'm a taxpayer, too. But we immediately run up against the problem of the vastly different expectations of the various taxpayers when they say, "So, are our teachers any good?" We either end up with a fairly specific accountability system that leaves many taxpayers saying, "Well, I don't really care about that," or more commonly, we lump a bunch of stuff together and answer taxpayers with, "Yeah, sure, they're pretty good" and ignore that "good" means completely different things to everyone in the conversation.

5) To find awesome teachers to give merit bonuses to.

Well, we know that merit pay doesn't work. We also know that, since school districts don't turn a profit, the traditional model of merit pay in which workers share the company's spoils doesn't apply. I someone going to tell taxpayers, "We have so many great teachers this year that we need to raise taxes to provide fair merit bonuses?" Yeah, I didn't think so.

But even beyond all that-- a merit bonus system will twist and warp the school. Because the merit will be based on something easily measurable, and that means some teachers will twist their practice toward that practice, even if it's bad practice. To see what I mean, just imagine a merit system in which a teacher got a bonus for every student in her class who got an A in that class. What do you imagine would happen next? All merit pay systems are either a variation on that approach, or systems based on elements over which the teacher has no control at all and which therefor don't effect anything except how powerless and demoralized teachers feel.

6) Prove to politicians/bureaucrats that current regulations are being followed.

Ah, the culture of compliance. What is Big Standardized Test based accountability except the state and federal governments saying, "You'd better teach that Common Core stuff, and if you don't, we're going to catch you and teach you a lesson."

7) Let teachers know whether or not they are meeting expectations.

One of the uniquely unnerving things about teaching, particularly when you start out, is that nobody ever tells you what exactly you are expected to do. Go in your room, and teach kids some stuff. Some schools are terrifying in their non-directedness. Let me tell you a true, amazing thing-- I have been in my school district as either a student or a teacher since 1969, and not once in those 47 years have we had an actual functional curriculum for the English department. Seriously. And I know we're not alone- plenty of districts have things on paper that are in no way connected to reality.

Nobody hands a teacher a job description. Administrators rarely set teachers down and say, "This is what we expect of you." So teachers acquire official or unofficial mentors, tune in to the school culture, use their own expertise and acquired experience, and listen as administrators and school leaders convey expectations in less formal and structured ways. I know this level of freedom horrifies some people; I think it is one of the strengths and glories of many districts. But could it help teachers to have a more formal expression of how they do or do not meet expectations? Sure.

8) To implement somebody's cool new idea about how to make teaching more awesome.

Oh, good lord! Principal McNerburger went to a conference and now he's all hyped up about freakin' Madeline Hunter.

9) To protect teachers.

God save us from sucky administrators who want to fire Ms. Whipple because he doesn't like the way she wears her hair or Mr. Whinesalot because he's a political activist for the wrong party. God save us from the school board member who's mad that some teacher won't play his kid on first sting or give his kid the lead in the school play or won't agree to go out with him on a date, and so calls up the administration and says, "I want that teacher gone! Fired!! Do iT!!!"

For that matter, God save us from evaluation systems that use shoddy tests and unproven formulas to generate a number that is no more reliable or consistent than rolling dice.

10) To compare teachers to other teachers

Because stack ranking is fun, and finding winners and losers is really helpful? No-- because public education is where bad corporate management ideas go to die. Private industry long ago noticed that stack ranking is just bad for business. To do so in education is exponentially worse, because any system that allows you to compare a tenth grade English teacher in Virginia with a third grade music teacher in Alaska is a deeply, profoundly stupid system.

11) It's paperwork.

Some combination of state and federal meddling has created a new form that must be filled out. There's numbers that have to go in here and checkmarks over there and mostly principals just want to get back to doing their actual jobs, which means that your evaluation form may have been filled out before Principal Swiffboat even set foot in your classroom to "observe" you. But as long as the paperwork looks good, nobody anywhere in the system cares about its relationship to reality.

12) Because, you know. Reasons, and stuff.

This is one of those things that administrators are supposed to do. The administrators doing it may have no actual purpose or point in mind, but they know it's a Thing They're Supposed To Do, so here we go.

The thing is, you can't pick more than one or two of these; they are almost all completely mutually exclusive. Yet, on the state and federal world, as filtered through the thinky tank policy wonk lens, the goal is to do some combination of most of these.

And some of these require major overhauls. If you want, as the Bellwether discussion suggests at one point, a system that meets teacher needs for professional development and growth, you need to pretty much scrap everything we're currently doing and start from scratch. People who think that we can look at BS Test results and thereby identify teacher professional development needs are clearly smoking something. That is like looking at an elephant's toenail clippings and deciding sort of fertlizer nutrients are needed for all the rice fields of Asia.

Honestly, I don't think we will ever have a good teacher evaluation system in this country. It would require everyone to be on the same page about the purpose of schools, the role of teachers, and the outcomes we want to see in all those areas, and I don't think that level of agreement is either possible or even desirable.

I think the best we can hope for is a system that isn't toxic and bad and damaging to public education, which is pretty much the kind of system that NCLB, RTTT, and Waiverpalooza gave us. I expect something simpler from Trump-DeVos, in which anyone who is identified as a trained, experienced teacher is automatically rated "Awful" or "Sad" in a late-night tweet. For what it's worth, I have a whole system for serious teacher evaluation ready to go as soon as someone is ready to help me launch my consulting business. But in the meantime, I think we're going to be stuck with one of the above.


  1. What about good old collaboration and support? Imagine a principal saying "I'm coming to collaborate with you on Monday to find new ways to support your work in the classroom" rather than, "I'm coming to evaluate you on Monday so I can decide if you can keep your job."

  2. What a difference a verb makes! So simple, so obvious, so ignored.