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Do Good Looks Affect Teacher Ratings?

As farfetched as it sounds, pulchritude is an important factor in determining how teachers are evaluated. It's not that student test scores don't count (they will constitute up to 40 percent of a teacher's rating in some states beginning in the 2012-13 school year), but as long as classroom observations are factored in, the role of good looks comes into play.

Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas-Austin, has conducted a series of studies on the role that appearance plays in the workplace. He found that better-looking men and women get paid more than average-looking men and women of similar education and experience ("Linjustice," The New Yorker, Mar. 5). To add insult to injury, taller people also get paid more on average.

Readers will probably think that this tendency does not apply to education. But they would be wrong. Hamermesh also found that good-looking college professors received significantly higher teaching scores than their less attractive colleagues ("Economic Scene; A beautiful mind is not enough when it comes to evaluating teachers," The New York Times, Aug. 28, 2003). Curiously, good looks played a significantly more important role in rating men than women. Why would teachers in K-12 be immune to this halo effect? I think that evaluators are unconsciously influenced by good looks, despite the existence of checklists. I'm not saying they can't be trained to minimize or eliminate this bias. But it's all too easy to associate good looks with instructional competencies.

Teacher observations have always been subjective, as an essay in yesterday's New York Times written by a special education teacher explains ("Confessions of a 'Bad' Teacher," Mar. 4). To make them more objective, it's vital to have teachers evaluated by different persons. In that way, the possibility of beauty bias is kept to a minimum. Some teachers may have won the beauty lottery at birth, but that's no reason they should be rewarded for what they haven't earned in the classroom. Let's leave the fortunes bestowed on extremely good looking people to Hollywood.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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