Teacher Evaluations and True Teaching

by Bill Purdin on February 17, 2011

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est. “Knowledge is power.”
— Francis Bacon

That quote is one of those things that the wrong people really understand. And, here is one more:

Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good. — Thomas Sowell

1. The Current System: Performance Reviews: In most school districts there already exists a detailed system for fairly removing under-performing, unqualified, ineffective or chronically-troubled teachers. It takes a high quality principal, however, to affect change contractually. So, in my opinion, all of these polemical and threat-edged debates about teacher evaluations really beg the question of “who is in charge around here anyway?” The contracts all outline a procedure something like: at the first sign of trouble, put it in writing (What’s the problem? What’s the solution, how can we work together to make it happen on a positive, defined and monitored timetable?)

The real problem is leadership: courageous, principled, open-door, fair-to-all leadership, that is. Would you blame the employees in a badly run store? Certainly not as the root cause. So, in our precious schools, why are we blaming the teachers as the root cause? They couldn’t be. They didn’t hire themselves. They don’t write their own reviews. They don’t choose the students who are assigned to their classroom. The normal system for removal of a professional-status teacher, once the problem has been defined and determined as unfixable, is a one year, 100 day period of closely monitored probation. At the end of that period, if things do not improve (to the satisfaction of the principal) the teacher can be fired for cause. Yes, fired. Why the 100 days? It is very simple. Teachers can be assigned an unbalanced classroom with an inordinate number of discipline-intensive students. It can be that the principal is mad and punishes the teacher. It can be that the principal has favorites and this leads him or her to assign high-achievers to certain teachers, or maybe just avoids giving this teacher or teachers obvious problem students. It could be something more essential like the nature of the district, or a faulty sorting system. The 100 days provision allows for this case and gives the teacher in question the first 100 days with a NEW class in a NEW year to see if, in fact, it was a faulty and unbalanced class assignment system that caused the problem(s). It makes sense when you look at it that way, doesn’t it? In my opinion, if the first 100 days are better, then the principal needs a hard talking to. If there is a pattern of unbalanced or unfair student assignments, the principal must go, not the teachers.

The second element in teacher evaluations is what is evaluated? The first issue to be considered is how frequently should teachers be evaluated? Every year, every teacher sounds good to me. First, because if there is a problem it will be caught early. Second, every year means the differences in class make up will be noted. And third, it makes the principals stay involved and knowledgeable as opposed to remote and pontifical. In other words actually do their job. Fourth, to achieve such a prodigious production of fair evaluations, an evenhanded and non-confrontational system must be established that everyone agrees on… and no changing it without a documented and inclusive, open process. Fifth, because if a problem goes uncorrected, we will then know exactly who is responsible.

So then, what is to be evaluated? One thing really: teacher-student interaction. Here are some of the components: motivation, knowledge modeling and exciting student’s love of learning, patience, knowledge of learning styles, communication skills, ability to manage classroom, problem solving skills, use of teaching resources available, and innovations. Or put another way: does the teacher set a good example for the students and provide them with valid and appropriate learning opportunities? But today there is only one true measure of a teacher’s effectiveness: test scores. Most teachers know that assessment on multiple levels, including test scores, is a better system than test scores and that, in a true teacher‘s world, test scores are only one measure of assessment and, at that, usually the worst one, in the sense of being the least informative. In our world of industrial modeling [see previous Blog], a teacher could actually excel in every category except test scores and be fired.

Who should be evaluated? Easy answer: teachers and administrators. (Parent evaluations would be helpful but no one has devised a system for that.) It’s easy to evaluate teachers, administrators do it. But how do teachers evaluate administrators? By the way, if the administrators are NOT evaluated by the teachers then the evaluations submitted by administrators are really without true standing. For example, say after years of evaluating teachers harshly, an administrator is found to have been favoring young teachers over senior teachers and young teachers received the highest scores? He or she would be fired, but then what happens to all of those evaluations he or she performed, recorded and enforced through promotions, class assignments and penalties? If, on the other hand, teachers were also evaluating administrators, problems could have been caught much earlier. But teachers evaluating their bosses? How can that work? No one likes to be badly evaluated, but if an employee does it, what protects that employee from overt or covert discrimination? So, teachers will have to evaluate the administrators anonymously. No other way could render honest results.

Who evaluates? Easy enough: students are evaluated by the teachers; teachers are evaluated by the parents (anonymous survey) and appropriate administrators, and administrators are evaluated by the teachers (anonymous survey) and the superintendent. The parent surveys are compiled by a PTO and teacher surveys are compiled by the union. All are publicly released. The teacher assessments are also publicly released as are the evaluations of the administrators and the superintendent. Imagine… transparency.

Is there a better way than subjective performance evaluations by the Principal? Yes. A concept known as performance previews.

2. A Better System: Performance Previews. Once a system realizes that principals are not all-knowing, rather are imperfect people judging other imperfect people, the subjective nature of performance evaluations is acknowledged and stops being the elephant in the room. A person’s livelihood can be destroyed by an unfair review process. In fact the review process can become simply a way of pleasing the administrator’s boss. In this situation, what employee would ever speak their mind? What employee would ever disagree with the boss? This old system, by its very nature, creates a total disconnect between the team that is teaching children and the administrators and, far from making things better, in fact it makes things worse. Much worse.

The answer [Samuel A. Culbert, “Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing – and Focus on What Really Matters.”] is the Performance Preview. In this process both the boss (principal) and the subordinate (teacher) are each held responsible for setting goals and achieving results. The teacher will no longer be held to often arbitrary and changing systems of measurement that the principal or superintendent create. Instead of the principal handing out “meets expectations” or “needs improvement,” ratings, and the teacher being left with a take-it-or-leave-it situation, they both will be required to work together ahead of time to identify the problems (on both sides), to keep each other informed as they go, and to get to the results that everyone is counting on. “We are in this together and it’s my job to ensure results,” they both say. Principals are encouraged and required to work as mentors and teachers are required to give honest feedback without recrimination. Most teachers are hungry for this sort of responsive collaboration, which gives them back their voice on work rules, employment conditions and working environment, and the chance to actually have someone listen to them who has an equal stake in the process and outcomes. Once or twice a year performance evaluations can create pent up problems that boil over. Constant and open collaboration heads off problems, lowers the temperature and creates trust and cooperation. Teachers (employees) are almost always better at coming up with measurement systems that lead to systemwide gains than principals (bosses) are on their own. Employees working together under the leadership of good managers are always the keys to success. And, in this performance preview system, people who do not seize the opportunity to collaborate with their managers to help things improve, who do not join in and cooperate… well then the problem is identified pretty obviously (either way) and there are avenues to fix it without delay.

Performance reviews make it impossible to have a healthy employee-management relationship. With performance previews it is almost impossible not to have a healthy employee-management relationship. When employees are given the safe opportunity to say how they can do their best and managers are involved and listening without other agendas, then improvement is not just possible, it is inevitable.

Once you take the animosity and fear out of the schools and classrooms, then true teaching and solid management rise like the tide that lifts all boats. And you can’t have one without the other.

Closing quote and thought.

“As is often the case with morally charged policy issues — remember welfare reform? — false dichotomies seem to have replaced fruitful conversation. If you support the teacher’s union, you don’t care about the students. If you are critical of the teacher’s union, you don’t care about the teachers. If you are in favor of charter schools, you are opposed to public schools. If you believe in increased testing, you are on board with the corruption of our liberal society’s most cherished educational values. If you are against increased testing, you are against accountability. It goes on. Neither side seems capable of listening to the other.” — The New York Times, April 10, 2011; “Bad Education. The debate over school reform can seem rigid and doctrinaire. For some, it has become an impossible conversation.”

Well the point is, of course, that even with this loquacious listing of battle points, while seeming to be even-handed it definitely is not; unless you believe that all opinions — regardless of intention and facts — are equal. Supporting the teacher’s union could easily stem from a deep empathy for students and the recognition of the natural bond between student and teacher. To pose that dichotomy may actually be a way to make it come true. The people who want to destroy public-funded education, in the quote above, have equal standing with those who want to save and improve it. That is the element that makes the conversation impossible, not mere the fact that there are opposing views. In “morally-charged” discussions one needs to look deeply to see where the morality is and isn’t. That’s what makes it tough: The idea that there is right and wrong in the world.

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