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The Teacher Evaluation Juggernaut

Teacher evaluation--with all its multiple facets, blind alleys, disputed data models, technocratic hype and roll-out problems-- is on every principal's mind these days. It would be great to think that principals in states with new evaluation plans are eager to begin this work, now having permission to sink more deeply into their roles as instructional guides, to have productive two-way professional conversations with their teachers, thinking together about improving instruction to reach specific goals.

But no. They're worried about another time suck and avalanche of paperwork on top of an already-ridiculous workload. And--you can't blame them. Being a good principal, like being a good teacher, is impossible. There is no way one single human being can cover all the bases, from keeping the buses running on time to staying abreast of the new math curriculum in grades K through 6. Besides, the new evaluation plans have huge problems embedded, beyond the make-work element.

Hint: this is how pointless and ineffectual evaluation-checklists came into being. For many years, the first item on my school's teacher evaluation checklist was "Teacher's appearance is neat and well-groomed." Worthless. But certainly easy to evaluate in a matter of seconds.

I'm happy to see the Checklist Era end, too. But--however inadequate the evaluation tools, sharp principals have been pretty good at identifying, and sometimes picking off, the lemons. There's considerable evidence that even before they see "data," principals reliably know who their superstar teachers and ineffective teachers are--even if they're unclear about that large middle segment. From a 2005 study by Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren:

In particular, principals appear quite good at identifying those teachers who produce the largest and smallest standardized achievement gains in their schools, but have far less ability to distinguish between teachers in the middle of this distribution and systematically discriminate against male and untenured faculty. Moreover, we find that a principal's overall rating of a teacher is a substantially better predictor of future parent requests for that teacher than either the teacher's experience, education and current compensation or the teacher's value-added achievement measure.

Presumably, weaving a constantly shifting percentage of test data and "multiple measures" (whatever that means) into complex evaluation procedures will help principals keep closer tabs on the instructional efficacy of all staff members. Unspoken: and generate a paper trail that will make it easier to fire them, too.

Is it more important for principals to spend time doing complex teacher evaluations than walking the halls, talking to parents and students--or mundane tasks like bus duty? Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project and a person who has obviously not spent much time in middle school cafeterias, suggests that schools ensure principals act first as instructional leaders, transferring non-academic tasks to "other staff members."


"This is what they're supposed to be doing. Do we really think that lunch-room duty or monitoring the school buses is so important?"

Actually, yes. An effective principal will have his/her finger on the pulse of school climate, sharing daily responsibility for a building that is safe and orderly, where good teaching and learning flourish, where there is mutual respect. Anybody who thinks that job can be permanently outsourced to unnamed "staff members" is mistaken. Good school leaders don't shut themselves up in their offices to do paperwork. Not if they want the support and cooperation of their teachers and students.

So--who will do this complex, data-based evaluating if principals don't have enough time? There's talk of peer review, bringing accomplished teachers into the evaluation process. For every teacher who's ever worried about their principal having zero expertise in their subject discipline, this could be good news. But I'm guessing use of teacher evaluators would start a firestorm among the biggest promoters of using test data to evaluate teacher performance.

My prediction: In the end, this will be another issue where outcomes are determined by cost-effectiveness. If it's too expensive for principals to fairly evaluate teachers' instructional efficacy, a cheaper strategy--relying more heavily on test data and technology--will be found. In fact, I'm guessing that any number of education publishers and non-profits are working on it right now.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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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