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Evaluating Teacher Evaluators

The cover story of the latest issue of Newsweek is another reminder that the U.S. is on the threshold of a new era in teacher evaluation ("The Key To Saving American Education." Mar.15). Although standardized test scores are given the greatest weight in evaluating teacher effectiveness today, class observations still are used. It's instructive, therefore, to take a closer look at how the identification process operates.

In the overwhelming majority of schools, principals or assistant principals observe teachers in the classroom on an announced or unannounced basis, or on both. Their ratings are sometimes supplemented by those of the department chairpersons of the teachers involved. It should be pointed out, however, that the latter practice is more often used in middle and high schools than in elementary schools.

The trouble with this system is that unless the principal or designated agents are certified in the subject being taught, what they come up with makes a mockery of accountability. If a teacher of Spanish is being evaluated, for example, how in the world can a principal who taught physical education claim to possess the expertise to judge the lesson? Does the principal know the proper use of the subjunctive? What about proper pronunciation?

Critics of this position will maintain that at least the principal can tell if a teacher demonstrates effective classroom management techniques. No one denies that an out-of-control class is antithetical to learning. But short of a blackboard jungle, what does it have to do with imparting the knowledge and skills needed for students to become proficient in Spanish?

Recognizing the need for defensible evaluation, some schools are considering peer review. Teachers observe other teachers in the same subject. This can be done within or between schools. Despite conventional wisdom, teachers tend to be harder on each other than might be expected. They know that giving weak teachers a pass when they don't deserve it makes their job tougher down the line because they ultimately have to deal with what students should have learned.

But principals are reluctant to yield. The state education code, board of education policies and court rulings all grant them enormous power. The best argument to convince them to share this authority more widely with same-subject teachers is that cases involving removal of incompetent teachers can be strengthened and expedited. It is similar to the use of expert witnesses in courts of law.

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