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Ambush Evaluations of Teachers

Positive lessons about school reform can sometimes be learned from other countries. What England will do beginning in the fall, however, doesn't fall into this category.

According to The Guardian, Ofsted, the office responsible for maintaining standards in education, will make unannounced visits to schools with student behavior problems ("Schools to get surprise Ofsted inspections," Jul. 14). Up until now, such schools usually received prior notice. But critics maintained that the old policy allowed schools to hide what was going on by such strategies as arranging field trips for miscreant students and urging ineffective teachers to call in sick on the day inspectors said they would show up. (Presumably, the new surprise visits will not focus on instruction itself, a big mistake in my view.)

I have no doubt that some teachers put on a dog-and-pony show when they know beforehand that they will be observed. But I question the validity of the inferences that will be drawn when the new strategy is used, whether in England or in the U.S. That's because it's altogether possible for teachers to be effective in achieving their objectives, even though their classrooms may not meet the overt student behavior criteria established by outsiders.

Let's not forget that teachers have their unique styles of instruction. What seems to be chaos in the eyes of external raters may, in fact, be inconsequential. When I was working on my secondary school teaching credential at UCLA, one of the requirements was to observe classes at a local public high school or middle school. I was immediately struck by the diverse classroom environments. If I had been an inspector, I would only have been able to rate the decorum I had seen, which could have been a distraction from what students were actually learning. The two are not necessarily the same, despite what reformers often claim.

A fairer way of evaluating teachers and schools is to collect data from a variety of sources over a stipulated period of time. For example, if student behavior is the most pressing issue, raters need to determine the role that out-of-school factors play. Classroom management techniques can do only so much if students come to school without proper nutrition and rest. It's interesting to note, for example, that the most unruly classes tend to be those scheduled right before lunch (hunger pangs), and the most docile classes tend to be those scheduled when schools first open in the morning (sleep deprivation).

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