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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Making Teacher Evaluations Public...What’s the Point?

By Peter DeWitt — June 21, 2012 5 min read
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Most parents want to know how their children are doing in school. They send them off to school to be safe, engaged and learn how to act socially with peers. Parents go to Open Houses and parent-teacher conferences. Many communicate through e-mail and phone calls. Parents know through their child’s progress, projects they bring home, report cards and overall happiness, whether their child is doing well in school. It’s through these methods that parents understand whether their child’s teacher is effective or not.

What makes a teacher effective? It’s a fair question. Parents pay taxes and they entrust their children to teachers, administrators and support staff every day. They may have had a bad experience with teachers when they grew up so they are sensitive to the fact that not all teachers may be the best educators for their children. Even educators can think of a teacher they may have had in life that should not have been in a classroom.

Some teachers are strict but their students rise to the challenge and do well. Some teachers are kind and even the toughest of children love coming to school to see a teacher who will be kind to them. Others teachers are highly engaging and students run off the bus to see what the day will bring them. It sounds far-fetched but I am a principal in such a school. I watch students run off the bus to begin their day. Today was our first day without kids, and not seeing them run into school is the part I dislike the most about summer.

For most of us bad teachers are the exception and not the rule. Most of the bad teachers we had when we were young were educating students long before high stakes testing and accountability. This new era that we are all living through is supposed to change the way teachers educate students. It is supposed to make sure that the best teachers remain and the worst ones leave. It’s supposed to get all of us to rise to the challenge of being highly effective knowing that we may never get there using the rubric set in place. Are good teachers staying in education and bad teachers running out the doors fearful of our new accountability standards? No, probably not.

Making Evaluations Public
Whenever a debate comes up in the news I try my best to look at both sides. There are always reasons why someone is trying to go against the status quo or question a long held rule. In New York State, and other states across the country, there is a debate about whether teacher evaluations should be made public so parents and community members can see what kind of teachers are educating their children.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a staunch advocate for making teacher evaluations public. According to the Wall Street Journal (NY Assembly will Pass Cuomo’s Teacher Eval Bill) “a court, education reformers and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have said all evaluations should be made public to trigger the quickest reform of schools and motivate teachers.” I’m not clear on whether this will “motivate” teachers or be another example of how politicians use the teaching profession as a scapegoat for larger issues like unemployment, poverty, etc.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State agreed to make teacher evaluations public to parents but not to the general public. However, community members will still be able to see how their schools are doing without the benefit of viewing data by teacher name. That should work. I mean, I’m sure parents won’t discuss education with other community members so teacher names will never be shared...

This process is more than a year away and there are many details that need to be worked out. One of the issues is that it will only give parents access to the evaluation of their child’s present teacher and it does not give further information on how a principal would go about moving a child mid-year. It also does not give us full details on how this latest rubric will truly tell us what effective means.
There will be parents who want their children moved mid-year and it will not be done quietly.

Considering that high stakes testing results are not always released in a timely fashion (which count for 20% of a teacher’s evaluation), this whole process will create more chaos than good. Public exposure using these methods may tell who are ineffective but it could potentially classify teachers as ineffective or developing when they really are not. We only need to look at the Value-Added scores being released in the New York Post several months ago to get an example of how scores can be wrong (How to Demoralize Teachers).

The question that I ponder is why is this so important? It feels as though politicians and reformers are looking to slap a scarlet letter on teachers in an effort to shame them out of the teaching profession. Bloomberg says “motivate”, but it seems to be more of an effort to force schools into a corner. Will schools fight back instead of making all of these new mandates work?

Teacher evaluations are highly important. All teachers should be observed and appropriately evaluated by competent administrators. One of the reasons why this debate is coming up is that there are administrators who did not do their jobs and there are teachers who are not good at educating students. Once again, that is the exception and not the rule.

The Bigger Question
The question that parents must ask is how effective are the teacher’s evaluations? Most evaluations are comprised of three different areas. There is a 60 point scale (60%), 20% of the evaluation will be locally measured assessments, and the last 20% will be state assessments. Given the make-up of the evaluations, it is virtually impossible for a teacher to receive a rating of highly effective, which is what many parents will be looking for when it comes to their child’s teacher.

There is a potential that after the release of information, parents will call the principals of schools asking for a change of teacher assignment. Teacher evaluations are supposed to be about teachers and administrators working together to improve on their practices so that all students will be engaged in the educational process. They are not meant to be used in some political game to show who is taking the toughest stance on teachers. Will teacher evaluations, and there ultimate release, really tell the real story on whether teachers are effective or not? That overall question is another example of how politics is trying to persuade public perception.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.