Hess: One Size Doesn’t Fit All with Teacher Evaluations

Rick Hess offers some thoughts on teacher evaluations and the polarization that occurs whenever the topic is discussed:

[O]ur teacher evaluation and pay debates are fought between two bizarre poles. One camp insists that teachers, for some reason that escapes me, can’t possibly be evaluated fairly. Any tough-minded effort to gauge teacher performance or reward more productive or talented teachers is seen as an attack that must be ferociously contested. And those who see the value of paying good employees more than bad ones aren’t content with creating systems that will push schools and districts to figure out how to do this; far too many want to settle for enacting prescriptive policies that gauge teacher performance in terms of reading and math value-added and then adjust pay accordingly.

In other words, this is a false choice. Teachers aren’t some unique class of worker that either simply can’t be evaluated or can all be evaluated the same way. Different methods at different levels in different districts or even the same district can be found (say, whole-school a la Deming in Cranston while Bristol does value-added) The point is that there is no one, single solution, but that doesn’t mean there is absolutely no evaluation solution!

To most folks in health care, high tech, sales, advocacy, or just about any other field you can name, both positions are inane. To them, the complexities of evaluating personnel and crafting sensible pay systems are pretty obvious. That’s why they’ve been tinkering with different ways to gauge and reward employees for more than half a century. Most people recognize that a boss’s judgment is inevitably subjective, but also believe that it has real value–and that a boss who’s responsible for their team will take care to weigh the range of relevant factors. Bottom line: most sectors don’t turn discussions of employee evaluation and pay into moral crusades, they simply tinker with what might make sense. The biggest problem in education is that our current arrangements force us to approach these questions as “policy” questions, with the presumption that a state or district will set rules that apply to every teacher in every school in that geography. In that fashion, by enforcing uniformity, we stifle opportunities for variability or creative problem-solving, and accentuate the temptations to adrenalize these debates.

While many want to make Rhode Island one district–and that is an attractive thought from an administrative cost-savings standpoint–there are also potential benefits to our current “tiny kingdom” setup whereby different methods of evaluation could be tried. That will require some cooperation, though. We’re not there yet.

This has real consequences. As I’ve noted before, clumsily-designed value-added measures risk “stifling the kind of smart use of personnel that reformers are trying to encourage.” But I guess it’s easier, and maybe more fun, to rant against step-and-lane pay and promote grand solutions–or to “defend the profession” against the crazy idea that some people are better at their jobs than others, that we can distinguish among them, and that we should take this into account when setting pay.

It ain’t rocket science.

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11 years ago

I defy any teacher to claim that there is no good way to evaluate teachers.

David C
David C
11 years ago

Unfortunately, Patrick, there are many bad ways to evaluate teachers.
But that doesn’t mean that school systems don’t owe it to the taxpayers and the teachers themselves to develop real evaluation systems.

11 years ago

Time again to astonish Pat Crowley, because I am sympathetic to this complaint: The simple-minded focus on “evaluating teachers” is meaningless when the system is designed to punish achievement and reward failure. This is not the fault of teachers, but of education bureaucrats and administrators, and of politicians, who have mandated our present totally dysfunctional system. Dilbert is too mild a comparison – our system of government-owned and operated education is the closest thing to Stalinism in America today. From many conversations with teachers, here are some facts about the current system that make things impossible for a good teacher to perform well: 1. “Social promotion” is a reality, and the kids know it. 2. Many parents know it too, and they don’t care. 3. In the new “entitlement culture”, many parents, even the high-income ones in fancy school districts, blame the teacher if the kids get bad grades. 4. The public school establishment has put into the mainstream instructional methods such as “whole-word reading” and “discovery mathematics” that are proven to be complete failures. If a child can’t read after first grade, or do basic arithmetic after fourth grade, you can’t blame the middle school teachers for his inability to do the work. 5. The psychobabble that passes for pedagogical theory today has already destroyed two generations of Americans. This means that today’s functionally illiterate parents have no concept of what their kids should be able to learn and no respect for real learning. 6. Management in the public school establishment, being merely highly-paid bureaucrats, are incompetent managers and no kind of leaders. They constantly change policies so that no one can make plans with confidence. Case in point: in one middle school, all the teachers arranged that after four days of standardized testing they would all give the… Read more »

11 years ago

But David, teachers will tell us that there really is no good way to evaluate them. I think that’s crap and I’ve proven it every time I speak to one. It’s a quick conversation:
Teacher: “No, there’s no good way to evaluate us. Standardized tests? Those don’t tell you anything. Evaluation? Those are political. It just can’t be done.”
Me: “Really? Are you a great teacher?”
Teacher: “Yes, of course I am.”
Me: “How do you know?”
For the teacher to say they’re a great teacher, they must have evaluated themselves by some means, or the answer should have been “I don’t know.”

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