Teacher Evaluation Reform: Finding the Forest Through the Trees
by Mark A. Paige — November 04, 2011
This commentary suggests several important points that deserve attention in the debate over teacher evaluation reform.
Calls for reform to teacher evaluation systems are ubiquitous. Indeed, school administrators, policymakers, and scholars forcefully tout the value of new teacher evaluation systems in improving student achievement. That high quality teachers lead to improved student performance is a generally accepted premise in education literature.1 Notwithstanding this agreement, the notable clashes on this issue are well documented and receive outsized attention (think Michelle Rhee vs. the Washington D.C. teachers union). Within these more antagonistic disputes and public posturing, positions emerge that tend to overemphasize, overlook, or misinterpret important ideas to the overall debate.2
This commentary attempts to reinsert some balance and counteract the more polarizing ideas that tend to grab a disproportional amount of currency. The commentary suggests that these more heated debates detract from a meaningful discussion about improving our public schools through improved teacher effectiveness. Indeed, the dialogue concerning improving teacher effectiveness and evaluation would do well to recall several of the points listed below as the discussion goes forward.
First, there is a misplaced fixation on a systems-guided approach to teacher evaluation. Frequently, evaluation reform is framed in terms of revising systems. Moreover, there is a great deal of discussion devoted to finding the right tool or instrument that will measure teacher effectiveness. In this way, teacher evaluations are treated like products off the assembly line. To be sure, a focus on the instrument and process is necessary. But this is only part of the equation. A discussion of improving teacher evaluation must not overlook the human aspect of implementation. Indeed, any evaluation instrument or process can only be as effective as the people who are charged with administratively enacting it: principals and assistant principals, generally. An incompetent surgeon may have the sharpest scalpel, but that is not to say his surgeries result in success. Thus, a repositioning of the debate so that it properly balances both the technical and human side to evaluation is needed as discussions continue.3
Second, discussion should shift from its termination orientation. Too often the starting point for reforming teacher evaluations is how the process can be revised to dismiss teachers. Indeed, a 2009 briefing by the New Teacher Project reported that administrators turn to evaluations primarily when they contemplate teacher dismissal (Weisberg, et al., 2009). This is a misguided starting point. To continue the medical analogy above, the focus is on sharpening a scalpel, not improving the patients health. Instead, discussion (and practice) about improving teacher evaluations should start with a simple premise: the goal of redesigning evaluations is to improve teacher performance. This may seem an obvious point. To be fair, most educators and administrators do seek to collaborate to improve teacher and student performance. But when administrators seek teacher evaluation modification as a means to find their inner Donald Trump, much is lost.4 This cultural mind-set needs recalibration.
Third, the focus on teacher evaluation tends to obfuscate other critical components to improving the teacher workforce, in general. While teacher evaluation systems are the educational flavor of the week, they are but one element in the equation to improve teacher effectiveness. Indeed, placing and developing effective teachers in classrooms entails something well beyond even the perfect evaluation system. It means attracting smart and dynamic individuals into the teacher profession. It means building rigorous and standards-based teacher education programs. It means funding schools to an adequate level, to name a few. Thus, we would do well to not forget the various components that, together, can improve the quality of the education workforce.
Fourth, demonizing tenure detracts from meaningful reform. Indeed, when evaluation reform is explicitly couched as an end run around tenure, it has the practical effect of alienating unions. The battle against tenure is so engrained into this discussion the idea has become a four-letter word. This may have certain shock value in arousing public attention. Yet the focus misses the point: administrators already have at their disposal the tools to hire and train only effective teachers (and they always have). Before tenure protections attach, if an effective administrator is doing his/her respective job, then she has had ample opportunity to assess the effectiveness of a teacher. In most states, the typical trial run before tenure protections apply is three years. Indeed, if an ineffective teacher is retained, the competence of the administrator deserves more scrutiny, rather than that of the teacher in question.
Improving teacher quality is central to improving the quality of our schools. On that point, there is little disagreement. Developing and implementing teacher evaluation systems plays an important role in this objective. Thus, as this important debate continues, it is essential that scholars and policymakers eschew side issues and red herrings.
1. Exactly what constitutes a high quality teacher is a matter of considerable debate, of course.
2. To be sure, there are many instances where unions and management collaborate. These are the modest models to follow. But, unfortunately, these do not capture the attention as those instances where there is a good spoil. They should, however.
3. Reading not too far between the lines, this means that administrators bear a significant burden of ensuring that an effective teacher is in every classroom.
4. It is ironic that evaluation reformers frequently cite the private sector in their arguments. Indeed, it is frequently heard that private industry would never tolerate an evaluation process similar to those used in education systems. Without judging the accuracy of that assumption, it is hard to imagine that a private business would start an evaluation reform process with the preeminent goal as dismissing its employees.
The New Teacher Project. (2009). The widget effect (2nd ed.). Weisberg, D., Sexton, S., Mulhern, J., Keeling, D. New York, N.Y.