Judgement Day: The Double Standard of Teacher Evaluation

High-stakes testing of student achievement does not improve student learning, and … high-stakes evaluation does not improve teacher performance.
Paul Mielke / Tony Frontier

After more than a decade struggling to contend with the annual, daft charade of ticking the box of teacher evaluation, we finally conceded to the folly of our ways and decided that there should only be one approach to learning for all members of our school. Many principals will be all-too-familiar with the challenge: a significant proportion of experienced faculty and all new teachers require annual, formal classroom observations and documentation. You race through the list – doing the best you can, perhaps with the help of an equally bewildered assistant. Let’s face it: judging a teacher’s effectiveness based on limited classroom visits does the profession a disservice. You lodge your paperwork following time-consuming, debriefing meetings in which you objectively outline and record what you witnessed. All of this is done in the erroneous belief that we are somehow improving learning, when the truth of the matter is that we are not even checking the box marked “accountability”.

Why Teacher Evaluation Systems Don’t Work
The plangent perversity of this process is, perhaps, best summed up by Michael Fullan in a recent interview in which he remarked: “A huge apparatus is in place to identify the five to seven percent of teachers who shouldn’t be teaching. One hundred percent of teachers are involved in a superficial system in order to catch five percent. If you reverse that and say you want to catch the 95 percent in the collaborative culture, then you can do appraisal on teachers who are struggling.” Many schools have found that the traditional process of teacher evaluation is simply out of step with what we now believe about learning. While we emphasise the central importance of formative assessment and ongoing dialogue with our students, we seem to be intent on honouring an antiquated system of summative judgment that involves a double standard with our faculty. Taking the time to step off the appraisal treadmill and consider a commonsense approach to teacher learning, we arrived at the following set of beliefs about professional growth based on our experience:

  • Traditional appraisal systems do not improve teaching.
  • A culture of learning is about collegial, professional dialogue; not classroom inspection.
  • Learning is personal.
  • Teachers can best manage their own learning.

Research supported our conclusions. Our beliefs were echoed, for instance, by Kenneth D Peterson who, in The Myths (And Truths) of Teacher Evaluation lists a total of sixteen myths, with the following mythical beliefs, in particular, resonating with our experience:

  • There is scarce research to suggest that evaluation causes teacher growth.
  • Teacher quality can be objectively measured.
  • The principal is the only and best evaluator.
  • A uniform system of teacher evaluation is essential: all teachers should be evaluated the same way.

In designing our system, we were guided by some beliefs about learning that seemed self-evident, among them, this perspective of Gabriel Rshaid in his insightful study, Learning for the Future: Rethinking Schools for the 21st Century: “The realization that education is a customized and personalized business applies to teachers also, and most appraisal frameworks are fundamentally flawed in that they treat all teachers the same; and we all know intuitively that all teachers are not the same.” As influential educators such as Justin Baeder have asked, why is it that we insist with conviction on the need for students to own their learning, yet seem to adopt a different approach when it comes to our teachers? From these perspectives we developed a core, central philosophy that we sought to build our system upon:

If we believe that, in order to grow, students must be personally invested in their own learning, then the same is true for teachers. As a school, we aim to foster a culture of substantial conversation and professional growth centred on student learning.

Managing Accountability Through Commonsense
Despite having a highly talented faculty, we yet needed to ensure that a professional growth system based around contextual, personalized goal-setting and collegial dialogue would meet the appropriate need for accountability when it comes to teachers who do not meet our teaching standards or fall below them. The solution was simple. Again, we opted for commonsense: (1) all teachers in the first two years of their contracts are subject to a rigorous, formal, supported, and documented process; if they are deemed good enough after this time period, we can stop judging or second-guessing them (since we believe and expect that teachers will not stop learning); (2) we maintain a separate, supportive, documented process for teachers for whom, in exceptional cases, we may have a serious performance concern. The result: the vast majority of our teachers have been liberated from an artificial and often arbitrary process. In addition, we have time to visit classrooms without the bureaucratic obligation to document what we see.

A Hospitable Habitat For Learning
In a school in which we work hard to develop and nurture a culture of collaboration, the reality is that our traditional framework of teacher appraisal was actually excluding daily “evidence” of great learning. For instance, it is not uncommon for a teacher to drop by my office or stop at the coffee machine to speak with great passion and insight about a learning activity that has gone exceptionally well, or maybe not-so-well. A culture of open and honest dialogue about professional practice and collegial, student-focused conversation is far richer than anything an appraisal visit can ever yield. Logic suggested that we should support an existing or desired culture of professional dialogue and centre our plans around this.  We have therefore implemented a system for faculty professional growth in which teachers set professional goals over a two-year period and personally document their conversations about these growth plans with a member of the leadership team. Of course, in order to achieve this, we need to work with even greater awareness and care on what David Price, in his excellent book, OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future describes as, “a school culture that is a hospitable habitat for learning”. This essential ecology for learning should never be underestimated.

Trust – the Primary Force of Professional Learning
In workshop discussions in which we have shared this work and these ideas, fellow educators have at once seemed excited at the prospect of this liberated approach to supporting genuine teacher growth, then immediately troubled at the core concept implicit: this requires a lot of trust in teachers. It does, and they deserve it. As Barbara B. Levin and Lynne Schrum have pointed out, “cultures in which meaningful teamwork based on trust is the primary force of professional learning and continuous improvement.” This perspective has been supported by comments recently made by Fullan who continues to question the value of straitjacket systems of teacher accountability in favour of more humane ways to support our teachers, instead believing that a culture of collaboration is the most powerful tool for improving what happens in classrooms and across districts: “teachers need to feel respected and listened to, school principals need to step back, and the tone has to be one of growth and improvement, not degradation.”

It’s All About Relationships
Without the space to go into the full details of our learning-focused new approach here, so far, we are hopeful and optimistic – and see evidence – that our teachers are finding this approach to their personal learning more substantive and authentic than what we have done in the past. As a learning organization, we are still refining things as we go and will continue to. The kinds of conversations that teachers are having are wide-ranging, diverse, interesting, and thoughtful. In our guidelines, we did not seek to limit the scope of professional conversations that we could engage in together and provided only some broad, general suggestions.

It should be emphasised that the key to the success of this kind of approach to supporting teacher professional growth lies more in the relationships between leaders and teachers than in the shared Google Docs used by the teachers to maintain an ongoing, personal reflection of their learning. Strong professional and collegial relationships are the cornerstone of a school that promotes learning for all. These relationships are all about the culture of your learning organisation and, as Edgar Schein has suggested, developing this culture is the critical work of the principal: “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture and the [critical work] of leaders is their ability to work with culture.”

While many state systems seem increasingly committed to linking student test scores to teacher evaluation, the opposite direction is what is really needed. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on high-level training before teachers enter the profession; those who hire educators need to do so skilfully and induct them into a cultivated school culture of mentorship and support, collaboration and patience. Talented teachers who are supported and given the space to grow professionally in a trusting environment of accountability that places a high cultural value on trust, risk-taking, and the pre-eminent vitality of teacher-student relationships, are the key to improving learning in our schools.


Cartoon Graphic Credit: Wasserman / Boston Globe / Tribune Media Services