Teaching Profession Opinion

Common Sense Suggestions for Evaluating Teachers

By Linda Murdock — May 26, 2016 3 min read
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Teacher evaluation has in the past suffered from two fundamental issues: lack of consensus about standards and insufficient staffing to allow effective evaluation. These issues created systemic problems, including checklist type evaluations without attention to student learning, superficial procedural compliance, infrequent evaluations, and even simply lack of evaluation.

Linda Murdock

Recently, states have created new systems intended to improve teacher evaluation by addressing these problems. Unfortunately, although progress has been made toward developing good standards for effective teaching, most of the new evaluation systems either perpetuate old problems or create new ones by requiring more of the same (longer checklists, additional procedures, more frequent evaluations) and mandating the use of either student test scores or value-added measures, often in lieu of a supervisor’s judgment

In my state of Massachusetts, the evaluation system include 33 separate elements, each of which must be rated based on “evidence,” and a teacher’s median student growth scores (SGPs) must also be used. There is nothing that provides teachers and principals with the time needed to collect, present, review, and analyze evidence for the 33 elements, so paperwork consumes both instructional time and time for professional discussion. In addition, a teacher’s median SGP is useless because it generally correlates with class composition rather than with teaching effectiveness. As a principal, I observed an excellent teacher’s very high median SGPs fall to very low when her class included students with disabilities and English-language learners. I also consistently observed low median SGPs in classes with students with behavioral or social/emotional issues.

The best teacher evaluation system—in other words the most effective way to evaluate a professional’s work—is for a competent evaluator to provide a personal evaluation based on informed professional judgment that considers both student outcomes and teacher inputs. Teaching is a complex job involving hundreds of daily decisions, each requiring informed professional judgment. Student outcomes vary, depending on many factors, most of which are not under the teacher’s control. There are a wide variety of desirable outcomes that include good test scores, confidence, critical-thinking ability, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence, and independent learning skills. Teachers can control their inputs—instructional design, assignments, projects, feedback, student communication, work with parents—and can work toward identified student learning outcomes, but evaluation of their work must include a number of factors and reflect informed professional judgment by a competent evaluator.

Thus, effective teacher evaluation requires: (1) agreement on standards of excellence, not test scores or checklists or rigid procedures, but descriptions of desired student learning outcomes and effective teacher inputs; (2) competent, well-educated supervisors with the time and ability to evaluate teachers using those standards; and (3) a good structure for the process, including peer support as necessary for teachers, and district and community support for principals’ decision-making.

Progress has been made on the first factor, and many districts have had good structures in place for the third. However, the second factor is one of the two fundamental issues that led to the problems in the first place, so resolving it is essential. A school principal simply cannot adequately supervise and evaluate 35 to 50 teachers in addition to the rest of his or her job. There are possible solutions—additional staffing, less frequent evaluations, a peer-review structure, differentiated evaluation frequency—but unless this issue is resolved, a simplification of the process will inevitably occur and with it the same problems as in the past.

Linda Murdock is a retired school principal. She began her career as a corporate lawyer, and then became an educator, teaching at the middle school level, and then serving as a school principal at both the middle and elementary school levels.

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