Teacher-Evaluation Methods Called Inadequate
Houston--As the public clamors for "accountability" in education, the evaluation of teachers is taking higher priority than ever in hundreds of school districts.
But, as many school officials have discovered, it can also be a legal thicket.
Although an estimated 98 percent of the country's school systems have policies requiring the evaluation of teachers, administrators are "woefully inadequate" at carrying the policies out, according to Jerry W. Valentine, one of two nationally-recognized experts on evaluation who spoke this month at a seminar here sponsored by the National Organization on Legal Problems of Education (nolpe).
The school lawyers and administrators attending the seminar laughed with sympathy and recognition at the tale of one fellow participant: "In our state," the lawyer said, "they buy the bad ones off. They give them $20,000, and off they go, with a fine recommendation, back to school to get some more graduate hours."
But that need not be the case, according to Mr. Valentine, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri, and Joseph C. Beckham, a lawyer and educator at Florida State University.
"The litigation in this area is rapidly becoming immense," Mr. Beckham said. "But in many instances, your intuition about what is fundamentally fair is a pretty good guide and will keep you out of trouble.''
In making what Mr. Beckham termed "adverse employment decisions"--on dismissal, demotion, salary, assignment, or tenure--school boards most often blunder on procedure. And procedure, he said, is the first question judges consider in lawsuits over personnel actions.
"This is the most common grounds for reversal," he said. "The courts in these cases are guardians of process ... and they tend to interpret the procedural aspects of evaluation very strictly."
Improved Staff Performance
Mr. Beckham and Mr. Valentine offered several guidelines which, they said, should not only keep school boards out of court, but should also result in improved staff performance.
Their suggestions include:
A written, districtwide policy on employee evaluation. The policy should set specific standards for performance, Mr. Beckham said, and it must conform to constitutional guarantees of privacy, free speech, and equal protection, and to any state statutes, state regulations, and employee contracts.
The policy also should provide employees with "timely notice" of deficiencies and with an opportunity to improve their performance.
A simple, clear procedure for evaluation. In many school systems, principals use checklists to analyze teachers' performance. These, Mr. Beckham said, should be "precise, simple, and easily scored, and the user should be trained." Otherwise, he said, the validity of the evaluation may be called into question in court.
The procedure need not be elaborate, Mr. Beckham said. In one case, a federal judge ruled that a principal's notes, taken at five-minute intervals in the classroom to record a teacher's behavior, were sufficient evidence.
"To build a case," Mr. Valentine added, "you should restrict it to factors that are known to correlate with student achievement: knowledge of the subject matter, ability to articulate the subject matter, enthusiasm, and time on task."
Students' low achievement-test scores or parents' complaints alone are not sufficient evidence for dismissal or demotion, the presenters said.
"Multiple observations" by more than one person. One survey of school principals showed they spend less than 3 percent of their time on evaluation, Mr. Valentine said. He recommended that principals devote at least one-quarter of their time to observation of classes and staff development.
And, he said, principals should drop in on classrooms frequently and unexpectedly, rather than setting up appointments for observation weeks in advance--but he warned against observation from the hallway without the teacher's knowledge. "The number of visits," he said, "is more important than the length of time."
This practice holds advantages for both teachers and administrators, he said. It protects against a teacher who "puts on a show" during a scheduled observation, and it protects the teacher from being judged on the basis of one bad day.
In addition, Mr. Beckham and Mr. Valentine said, bringing more than one person into the evaluation may help to ward off charges of bias or favoritism.
"I want somebody there who's observing the fact that this teacher isn't [being victimized]," said Mr. Valentine, a former principal. "It'll cut a lot of things off at the pass, and it may keep them from going into court."
Under the laws of most states, the presenters said, the principal purpose of evaluation is to improve instruction, not to fire teachers.
Nonetheless, Mr. Valentine conceded, educators "simply ignore a lot of situations we shouldn't ignore." Administrators must be willing, he said, to identify and to take action against bad teachers.
"Those are the ones who give us headaches," he added. "Those are the ones who give us ulcers and get us fired.
"The question is, are you going to instill in the teacher the desire to change, or are you simply going to put the teacher down?"