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Unintended Consequences of Teacher Evaluation

New performance evaluation systems being adopted in school districts across the country are heralded as long overdue. But there's one aspect that is downplayed by reformers: they give principals a rare opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Their prey are veteran teachers who are at the top of the salary scale and who are likely to speak out on issues affecting their school because they have tenure. By rating them as ineffective, principals can get rid of them, in the process improving the district's balance sheet and silencing opposition.

Reformers will argue that the scenario I outlined is farfetched. They say that principals wouldn't resort to this tactic. But as I've written before, principals in even the best schools have used their power to settle old scores. The situation at Brooklyn Technical, one of New York City's elite high schools, was a case in point ("Bully on the Wrong Side of the Principal's Desk," The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2005). The presence of teachers unions is no assurance of protection against such abuses, particularly today when budget concerns are so pressing.

Although teachers will likely be evaluated based on input from students, peers and parents, you can be sure that principals will still have the final word. Reformers will defend this strategy by pointing out that performance reviews by the boss have been successfully used in business for decades. But there's another side of the story. Despite its ubiquitousness, the performance review "destroys morale, kills teamwork and hurts the bottom line. And that's just for starters" ("Get Rid of the Performance Review! The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 21). What it mainly does is reinforce power inequality.

Perhaps a case can be made that in business a well defined chain of command is essential. But schools are not businesses. They are places where professionals work together to provide an education for the young. If teachers feel intimidated by their principals, they will be reluctant to say what's on their mind. I don't blame them. They have much to lose. Even if they prevail in fighting an unsatisfactory rating, the psychological price they pay makes their lives miserable. As Samuel A. Culbert, professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, wrote: the performance review is a "dysfunctional pretense." That doesn't bode well for school reform, regardless of the hype.

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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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