Teaching Profession Opinion

What Should Evaluation Systems Accomplish?

By Justin Baeder — June 23, 2011 2 min read
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Since my last post about Robert Marzano’s questionable new “causal” evaluation system, I’ve been thinking about the function of teacher evaluation systems. What should we expect them to accomplish?

At the most basic level is quality control. If someone is harming kids, they shouldn’t be in the classroom. An unsatisfactory evaluation (which you generally have to be pretty bad to earn) should serve to prevent kids from being stuck in a classroom with someone who shouldn’t be in the profession any longer.

But that’s a pretty low aim for an evaluation system. There’s been much talk lately of “recognizing and rewarding” better teaching, language that we often hear when merit pay or value-added systems are under discussion. If there are real differences in teaching quality, these shouldn’t be masked by an evaluation system that says nothing beyond “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” That’s not to say we need a system that allows us to rank each teacher from best to worst, but a good evaluation system should at least allow us to identify different levels of performance.

If we consider the true potential of evaluation systems, there’s another function: Promoting professional growth. I had the privilege of hearing Charlotte Danielson’s keynote at the NAESP convention in Tampa a few months ago, and this was a major point of her presentation: Evaluation systems should promote professional growth.

I think what bothers me so much about Marzano’s system is that it doesn’t try to promote professional growth; it promotes a creeping incrementalism geared around the forced implementation of specific strategies. Yes, you can grow professionally by refining the strategies in your repertoire, but when your boss is evaluating you on the basis of which strategies you use and how well, that changes the dynamic in an unhelpful direction.

I’m personally not very interested in the extent to which people use specific strategies; from the near-infinite number of potential strategies, I’m most concerned that people make good choices and do well what they choose to do. As commenter Liz50 reminded us my last post:

Technique is what teachers use until the real teacher arrives." —Parker Palmer

In other words, a strategy is a way to get an outcome; it’s not the outcome, and the strategy itself may become unnecessary at some point. A prolific novelist doesn’t use the same strategies for generating writing topics that we teach to our first graders; they have outgrown such strategies long ago, and if they use any strategy at all, it’s likely far more nuanced than anything we could impose from the outside.

I’m pleased to see that we are shifting toward evaluation systems (such as Charlotte Danielson’s) that define professional practice in terms of valued outcomes rather than rigidly specified outcomes.

I don’t have any problem with using good strategies, but it gives me pause when we start evaluating people based on their use of strategies they may or may not need. I’m not quite in the “results are all that matters” camp; I think professional practice is the sweet spot between total agnosticism and rigid overspecification about how teachers teach.

Ultimately, an evaluation system should assess the state of professional practice, to inform professional growth, identify high-quality teaching, and ensure quality control. Does your evaluation system accomplish these goals?

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