Education Opinion

Who Should Evaluate Teachers?

By Nancy Flanagan — March 07, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I was a band director for nearly all of my thirty-plus years in the classroom. When you hang around with band instructors for any length of time, you’re certain to hear grousing about how what we do in the classroom is unrelated to “regular” classroom instruction. This applies to whole-school professional development (such as inculcating surefire classroom management tips-n-tricks--no “bell-ringers” for band teachers), preparing kids for standardized tests, cross-disciplinary teaming, any number of practices. Especially teacher evaluation.

Music teachers are wont to complain about how currently popular teacher evaluation models just don’t work for specialty classrooms: the principal sitting in the back of the room with the clipboard and 72-point rubric “doesn’t understand” their instructional modus operandi and why it’s necessary to running their particular tight ship. Heads will nod sympathetically--He asked me why I spent so much time tuning! Can you believe it?--and every standardized “element of professional practice,” from listing objectives on the board to small group discussions to questioning routines, will be righteously sneered at.

The only time I ever heard a fellow music teacher offer another opinion on who was genuinely qualified to assess his practice was that rarity--a man whose principal had previously been a band director. This teacher’s evaluations, which had been sterling for more than a dozen years, had suddenly dropped into borderline territory, as his principal filled pages and hours with unwanted advice on how to “improve.” Which turned out to be, unsurprisingly, “this is the way I used to do it.”

In my last blog, I asked teachers to make policy suggestions and proposals--how would policy around contentious teacher practice issues evolve, if practicing teachers were solving problems by writing their own rules? This (also unsurprisingly) didn’t go so well. Teachers are used to being the objects of, not partners in, reform. They’ve been happy to outsource policy-watching to their unions. I got a lot of free-floating anger about stupid policy-making, but not many concrete suggestions.

In Michigan, as most other states, teacher evaluation policy and practice have become a kind of a perverse growth industry, in the wake of Race to the Top. Policy-making as economic stimulus, tie-barred with an opportunity to pass judgment on teachers:

If approved by lawmakers, the $27.8 million recommended in Governor Rick Snyder's proposed budget for teacher evaluations will largely go toward purchasing and training on the systems used to assess how educators are doing in the classroom, Michigan Department of Education officials said.

Even if they couldn’t elucidate the “best” way to evaluate teachers fairly and productively, I’m pretty sure my teaching colleagues in Michigan could think of better ways to spend $28 million on public education. Commenters on the quoted article were surprisingly lucid on why the state’s plan, produced by a blue-ribbon panel, was not likely to yield much of anything.

Thus--teacher evaluation seems like the perfect place to invite teacher input. If we don’t want rigid formulas mandating that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be tied to standardized scores--and we emphatically don’t, for many rock-solid reasons--how do we want teachers to be evaluated?

On a recent retreat, I took along a copy of Jim Popham’s Evaluating America’s Teachers: Mission Possible? The book is as good a summary of where we are in evaluating teachers as exists. Popham is a bona fide national expert on assessment, and hits all the right notes: standardized testing data is not designed to evaluate teaching and shouldn’t be used to do so; there are multiple problems with classroom assessments and observations; only human judgment is holistic enough to capture the genuine, multi-faceted, in-context picture of whether a teacher is “good enough” for the students she’s teaching.

Popham also makes a solid case for the idea that teacher evaluation is not about lopping off the bottom X% of “bad teachers,” magically upgrading the profession annually, a la Erik Hanushek. A good teacher evaluation system would be formative--providing guidance for improvement--as well as summative, although he argues that the same person can’t provide both developmental guidance as well as objective valuation of effectiveness.

One of the final chapters is a kind of grab-bag of minor processes that may or may not be useful in teacher evaluation--lesson plans, parent ratings, teachers’ professional development accomplishments, and so on. One of these is “student affect"--the ability of a teacher to motivate or inspire student interest and effort. Popham points out that this is not a quality that can be precisely measured.

It strikes me, however, that when kids and parents and community members comment on a particularly gifted teacher, it’s this quality--the ability to light a fire around learning, through passion and compassion--that they’re identifying. In fact, when even the most punitive and pro-privatization legislator rhapsodizes about his extraordinary fourth grade teacher (and why such teachers are rare in “failing” schools), high test scores or rigorous teacher-evaluation standards are never mentioned. Psychometrically reliable and valid or not, data on how teachers shape and encourage students is at the core of the teaching practice that leads to student success.

Of course, the $28 million-dollar horse is already out the of the policy barn for those who teach tested subjects, and the policy conversation has turned to how to adapt an expensive, likely dysfunctional system to the rest of us. What to substitute for easily available standardized data in ranking those who teach “non-core” subjects? Who should be monitoring us to make sure we’re “accountable?”

Music teachers are among the most accountable educators I know. We put on voluntary public performances so parents, colleagues and students see (and randomly judge) the fruits of our work, sometimes from icy metal benches in the freezing rain at halftime. We build organizations to get the specific professional learning our districts can’t provide--and then create festivals, concerts and contests to up the assessment ante. We’re already weighing public results of our teaching with evaluation models we designed ourselves, working with our local and statewide colleagues (and, frequently, state or national curriculum standards). And student affect--given the fact that music classes in secondary education are voluntary--is a huge piece of the ongoing evaluation of our effectiveness in motivating kids.

Why can’t this kind of teacher-designed performance-based assessment become an adaptable model for building policy around useful teacher evaluation, across grade levels and disciplines? What if teachers, using guidelines, crafted their own evaluation models? Yes, it would involve a steep learning curve for teachers and school leaders around what and how to measure valid student learning--but isn’t knowing how to collect and evaluate evidence of student learning a vital piece of what it means to be an effective teacher?

If we don’t trust standardized test scores (and we shouldn’t) and we recognize the limitations and lack of capacity around teacher observations--why aren’t we telling policy-makers exactly how we think teachers should be evaluated? We can do better.

How do teachers want to be evaluated--and who should do it?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.