If there is one thing everyone seemingly agrees on, it is that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student learning. But a new study calls into question whether the present process of evaluating teachers is defensible (“Leading via Teacher Evaluation: The Case of the Missing Clothes?” Educational Researcher, Aug 22).
The conclusion is based on the lack of evidence about “possible linkages between teacher evaluation and school improvement.” As a result, the investigators “suggest caution in this area.” I agree that great care should be taken in making judgments about this vital issue. But that does not mean giving up trying to devise better ways of evaluating teachers. According to the study, “the average principal spends around 3 percent of total time on teacher evaluation.” This number is largely unchanged over the past 30 years.
I’ve always believed that principals are not the proper evaluators of teachers. I recognize that legally they are ultimately responsible for everything that takes place in their schools. But that does not mean they cannot delegate the task of evaluation to others who possess the requisite wherewithal. (Even though I taught English, I was frequently evaluated by a principal who had previously taught drivers education.) I have in mind the use of teachers who are certified in the subject being taught and have been specially trained in evaluation. These teachers would travel from one school to another to observe instruction and provide constructive feedback to be used in non-punitive ways.
I realize that schools differ in their student populations, cultures and traditions. These are important factors to be taken into account. But I don’t think they should be the basis for rejecting my proposal out-of-hand. Let’s be frank: There is no one way of evaluation that is perfect. Whatever shortcomings exist in the use of itinerant evaluators are offset by the expertise they possess and the time they are allotted to do their job. England has long used a similar approach through Ofsted.
There will always be principals who are reluctant to cede any of their power to others. But I think that most principals would support a system that relieves them of this responsibility. For example, only about 40 percent of students in Philadelphia’s public schools scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test. Yet 99.5 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory (“Education Failure in Philadelphia,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 25). Clearly, something is terribly wrong with the teacher evaluation system there and - by extension - in other large urban districts.
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.