Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How Broken Is Teacher Evaluation?

On School Finance 101, Bruce Baker wrote today of some of the indefensible things said by state officials about proposed and/or new teacher evaluation models. He highlighted the idea behind many of them, that anything would be better than the status quo.
The standard retort is that marginally flawed or not, these measures are much better than the status quo. ‘Cuz of course, we all know our schools suck. Teachers really suck. Principals enable their suckiness.  And pretty much anything we might do… must suck less.
WRONG – it is absolutely not better than the status quo to take a knowingly flawed measure, or a measure that does not even attempt to isolate teacher effectiveness, and use it to label teachers as good or bad at their jobs. It is even worse to then mandate that the measure be used to take employment action against the employee.
I want to address the unspoken thinking behind that sentiment. Well, actually, I want to highlight the missing thinking behind that sentiment.

By "missing thinking," I mean that there are some important questions whose answers are assumed, without real examination.

The most important question might be: Is the traditional model of teacher evaluation inescapably wrong-headed and flawed, or is it just implemented incredibly poorly?

Regardless of how poorly we evaluate teachers -- and I think that everyone could agree that there is room for improvement there -- we each need to have a answer to that most fundamental question. Our answer there determines what kind of action we need to take.

So, let me unpack the basic elements of our traditional teacher evaluation system, without delving into implementation details.
  • Teachers efforts and practices are evaluated (i.e. not their students' learning)
  • Evaluation is based upon expert observation of their pedagogy in action
  • Evaluation is performed by their supervisor (i.e. department chair, assistant principal or principal.
Obviously, there is currently great distrust -- even condemnation -- of teacher evaluation, but it is not clear to whether that is because people thoughtfully have concluded that the basic model is inescapably flawed or because they do not like the results of we see today of teacher evaluation programs.

Reports like The Widget Effect and officials like Florida Board of Education member Sally Bradshaw seem to object more to the outcomes of those evaluations than the methods. As Matt Di Carlo pointed out, there is a lot of pressure to give more teachers lower ratings.

If that really is the objection, than the model used for traditional teacher evaluation might not be the problem, or at least might not need to be de-empahsized as it is in newer evaluation policies. (Perhaps greater training for school leaders in the standards and expectations for their evaluations could address the problem.)

And so, these are the questions I would ask of anyone weighing in on teacher evalaution:
  1. Do you think that expert evaluation of teacher practice, if done properly, is an appropriate way to evaluate teachers?
  2. Do you think that those above a teacher in his/her chain of supervision are the appropriate evaluators of their practice (as opposed to their experts peers or some outside inspector)?
  3. Can a teacher do everything well in his/her classroom, but student learning be hampered by outside (i.e. home, community, preparation, etc.) factors?
  4. Do you think we can effectively capture/recognize/measure all of these relevant outside factors for each student?
  5. How much of a teacher's effectiveness rating should be tied to portion of the standards/curriculum/lessons that we can/have put on the big standardized tests?
Note that these question are not necessarily technical in nature, in that they do not necessarily have definitively correct answers. Of course, greater knowledge should influence people's thinking, and there is room for making use of research in answering each of them. But they also get to people's values and expectations, things that not only should be made explicit, but also thoughtfully examined and considered.

While I agree with Baker that there are many things that would be worse that the status quo, what concerns me most is the lack of clarity in the reasoning behind people's objections and policy proposals. I do not know how to evaluate their proposals or how to think about a widely agreeable solution, as it is not clear what people are actually thinking.

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