School Climate & Safety Opinion

When Evaluation Teaches, Learners Reap the Benefits

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 09, 2017 4 min read
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Values form the bedrock of communities and organizations. Good will, common vision and trust hold them together. But, in most places, rules and consequences set the parameters of how those more amorphous things get operationalized. Without them, we would have bedlam, wouldn’t we? A question arises, though, do consequences work as lessons or as punishment?’ The reason that becomes a central question is that, for most learners, punishment is neither a pleasant nor a successful teacher. Prisons are an example. Even after the experience of the punishment, people commit crimes and wind up back in prison. Punishment without support, training, teaching and learning, overall, doesn’t work. So beginning with the little ones, when they make a mistake, how educators respond is important.

Accompanying missteps with acceptance, encouragement, and the route to success is evident in most Kindergarten classes. But as traditional academics play a more central role in what is being assessed, there is great variation depending on the teacher. If the misstep is a result of not having fully understood a rule, and not the content, that is the teachers’ responsibility, right?

Whether evaluating teachers or students, making what matters clear is essential. Even when a rubric or checklist attempts to make things well defined, communication and understanding can be elusive. For principal and teacher evaluation, rubrics, no matter which one is used, require discussion and common understanding of the dimensions and descriptors of the expectations to be considered ineffective, developing, effective, or highly effective, or whatever term your rubric uses. Even with that said, and years into the process, superintendents, principals and teachers still find misunderstandings and confusion about what a measure is and what it looks like in action. It is not uncommon for two observers to see the same thing and evaluate it differently. The result is a ‘score’ that fails to inform. In student assessments that require one correct answer, grading is easier. So for example mathematics answers may be either right or wrong. But when grading the entire process, when ‘showing the work’ is required, more than the answer is being assessed. Both are fair as long as each and every student knows and understands exactly what is being assessed. Essays become more challenging for teachers. Evaluating for voice, clarity, and word choices, for example, become influenced by opinion. Yet, teachers within schools try to master a level of consistency between each other in order for there to be a clear and consistent standard for the students to reach.

It is not a matter of what is being assessed as much as how clear and understood the expectations are. The other variable is the intention of the grade. Is the grade being used as a punishment or reward? A lesson for the future? Or is the grade an understood shorthand for the student to learn from? It is a mind-set or attitude that comes from the evaluator.

Fellow education blogger Starr Sackstein recently wrote a post entitled 5 Points Off for Using Pen? She wrote it from the point of view of a parent of a middle school student. Starr shared some of her thinking with these words.

Although following directions is essential in life at times (I’m not going to dispute that), using them to force students to be compliant only to penalize and degrade their communication of learning because it wasn’t done the teacher’s way, well that seems absurd.


Of interest to us were the responses she received both in support and in opposition. There are many sides to every story. One thread stuck out to us. There is a commonly held belief in the world of teachers (at least the world who read her blog). That belief is that schools have a responsibility to teach students how to follow rules. Compliance is a good thing. Red lights are not a suggestion and if they were, the number of car crashes would be on the rise. But teaching through grades as punishment, that is another story. The stakes are higher certainly, the older the learner is. But using grades as punishment runs counter to all the work that needs to be done as schools learn how to shift the way teaching and learning takes place. Compliance is important in regard to things like safety and social conventions. But none of our disruptors and inventors and designers of the future, none of our problem solvers will be motivated through punishment.

...Or Lessons that Teach

The point of Starr’s post was to share her thoughts as a parent about the unfairness of a grade lowered by 5 points for using a pen instead of a pencil while all the answers were correct. Her point was to question what was being measured and why compliance was being measured on that assessment. Without knowing the specifics we question why the teacher allowed the entire test to be completed in pen. Didn’t he or she see the student using the pen? Why not intercede and switch the implement being used? Was the intent to play “gotcha” and punish the student or was the teacher focused elsewhere while the test was being administered? And for the bigger picture, are principals doing that with teachers and superintendents doing that with principals? Parents might say that they also use consequences and punishment to teach at home. So, what is the underlying issue? It is motive and value. Both the parent and the teacher can implement counsel. It is a matter of whether consequences for behaviors that break rules and ferment discouragement and frustration and alienation - or they can teach with empathy and respect, no humiliation, just concern and expectation for growth. Add that to the accountability and we can teach and evaluate both.

Photo courtesy of 123rf

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.