Is there a fair way to evaluate teachers?

Fewer make the grade!  New state standards a jolt, particularly in poorer areas! Yesterday's Chicago Tribune devoted much of the front page and two inside pages to the newly released Illinois school report card. Because the 2013 exams were made harder, test scores plummeted, especially in "poorer communities."  Are these scores really the best way to evaluate a teacher?  There must be better indicators out there for measuring what constitutes a good teacher.

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

I'm not alone in asking this question. Researchers back me up. Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and other leading education research experts argue that tying the evaluation of teachers to standardized testing is highly unfair and inaccurate. I encourage you to look at her writing on this topicDiane Ravitch agrees in Reign of Error, pointing out that because students who have special needs or are English language learners bring down test scores, teachers who choose to teach our most vulnerable children are punished.  The instability of this type of evaluation has also been well documented.  Ms. Ravitch cites the example of the “worst” teacher in New York City  (and this was printed in the newspapers to compound her humiliation) who was a teacher of new immigrants who left her class as they became proficient in English.  Her principal believed she was an excellent teacher, but the math just didn’t add up.  A report from the National Education Policy Center entitled Can We Reverse the Wrong Course on Data and Accountability, concludes:

“Expertise has no algorithm. Wisdom does not manifest itself on a spreadsheet. Numbers must be the servant of professional knowledge, not its master. Educators can and should be guided and informed by data systems; but never driven by them.”

I am a former teacher and was a preschool administrator for over 22 years.  More importantly, I am a parent and grandparent, and teachers have had a huge impact on those closest to my heart.  And most of my best friends are teachers.  So my motivation for seeking a way to assess and value their work beyond the use of standardized test scores and mathematical rankings is pure. Of course, we need a way to evaluate teachers.  We want to help them improve their teaching, and we want to find a way to keep teachers who are not effective with our children from starting or continuing to work in our schools.  We want master teachers to remain in the profession and to serve as mentors for others.

I am by no means suggesting we go back to the totally subjective method of having a supervisor alone deciding a teacher’s rating.  The validity of that would totally depend on who the evaluator was, and there is no way to ensure that all supervisors, principals, or department chairs would be competent to make this judgment. So the $64,000 question (Google that reference if you don’t know what I mean!)  is how to assess these things in a fair way.

Here are eight lessons I learned while supervising staff at Cherry Preschool:

  1. Define the job.  We used a clearly written job description that included expectations for curriculum and planning, classroom environment, working with children, working in collaboration with families and other staff members, professional development, and conduct.
  2. Evaluate all personnel, including aides and special personnel, based on the job description. Observe several times a year and look at samples from children’s portfolios and teachers' lesson plans.
  3. Solicit parental input from an annual parent survey.
  4. Meet periodically to touch base problem solve.  Meet more frequently with new staff members.  Assign mentoring teachers to new staff members if possible.
  5. Warn staff members in writing if they are not meeting expectations and meet with them more frequently to develop strategies for improvement.
  6. In the annual evaluation meeting, go over goals established for the year to see which were accomplished. Compare and discuss the self-evaluation and the administrator’s evaluation based on the job description for the staff member.
  7. If the employee is returning for the following school year, develop new goals and objectives.
  8. Give staff member a written summary of the process.

I understand that, depending on the grade level taught and the need for standardization of the process over an entire school district, the solution is far more complex than the system I used at the preschool level.   However, some things could be added to the current methodology that focuses heavily on students’ standardized test scores.  My ideas may be impractical, naïve, or too costly, but here they are:

Teachers could be asked to document their plans and teaching for a unit of instruction linked to the district, state, or federal standards, and to adapt these plans for special education students and English language learners. Lessons could be observed several times a year by qualified supervisors or mentoring teachers. Teaching sessions could be videotaped and critiqued. Samples of student learning could be examined. Parent (elementary school) or student (middle/high school) surveys could also be taken into account as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

In this perfect world with unlimited time and resources, evaluating teachers would be a much richer and more meaningful process.  In the meantime, we have to find a better way to enable teachers to reach their full potential, to recognize the good work they do, and to weed out those who are not suited to the work.

What ideas do you have?    Do you know about a system that has been successful?  Teachers, what do you think?

For my on this topic, see my earlier post Good teaching is an art, not a mathematical formula.

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