Teaching Profession

Principals or Peers: Who Should Evaluate Teachers?

By Denisa R. Superville — February 27, 2023 6 min read
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Are principals the best people to do teacher evaluations?

Not necessarily, a study published in this month’s Educational Policy journal suggests.

The study found that peer-led evaluations left teachers with more positive feelings and more motivated to make job-related changes compared to evaluations conducted by principals and other administrators.

But it wasn’t just that teacher-led evaluations left teachers feeling better; those done by principals left teachers objectively feeling worse and less likely to make adjustments.

“It wasn’t a neutral kind of thing,” said Timothy G. Ford, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. Ford co-authored the paper, “Does It Matter Who Evaluates Teachers? Principal Versus Teacher-Led Evaluation and Teacher Motivation,” with Alyson L. Lavigne, an associate professor at Utah State University.

“A lot of the times…teachers were coming away——with worse feelings around their competence and their motivation toward teacher evaluations and teaching, and then they were making fewer changes to their practice. They are not really changing what they did after those encounters.”

On top of that, Ford and Lavigne found that the kind of carrot-and-stick measures built into many American administrator-led teacher-evaluation systems—such as salary increases for a job well done, or, on the other end, the possibility of punishment or termination—also did not motivate teachers.

Their study is based on an analysis of responses to questionnaires on teachers’ perceptions of their evaluations and whether the feedback led to positive changes in their confidence, motivation, satisfaction, practice, and use of student assessments. The survey also asked principals how often they used measures such as bonuses and job changes as part of their evaluations.

“This goes back to basic psychological research, and that these sort of strategies are very harmful for long-term motivation of individuals,” Ford said. “If the goal is to create a sort of self-propelling practice—this idea of we want this practice to continue, we want it to be helpful and useful—then using external rewards or punishment systems, we continue to see that these are harmful practices to have.”

To be clear, Ford added, “not every application of external rewards or punishment” was bad. Rather, it’s “how it’s done and in what context that creates the challenges.”

Is it better for principals or teachers to do evaluations?

Even though the peer-led evaluations led to more positive feelings and motivation, it’s hard to conclude from their research whether it’s better for principals or teachers to do evaluations, Ford said.

It’s possible that some evaluative tasks, such as classroom observations or feedback sessions with teachers, would be more appropriate for principals, depending on the school culture, while others may be better suited for teachers, he said. Veteran teachers, for example, may have more content knowledge expertise to help younger teachers improve. How the evaluation is framed and how teachers feel about it matter, too, he said.

It’s also not really about whether principals were doing a good or bad job evaluating teachers, but whether they were the best people in the school to do it.

“There is an assumption that because they are the authority figure that they need to do it,” Ford said. “It goes back to the idea of what is the purpose of the evaluation. If the purpose is to make teachers better, then I think, maybe, the principal is not the right person, necessarily, to do that. We have enough valuable resources in each of our schools in the form of experienced teachers, who’ve been there and have done that.”

Most teachers do not object to being evaluated; they really object, a lot of times, to the way it’s done and how they feel at the end of it.

While those teachers may still need training on how to provide meaningful feedback to their peers, for example, “they understand what it’s like to be a teacher and receive feedback, and they can be trained in ways [to do so],” Ford said.

“If as a leader, you’ve cultivated a culture of support around feedback and evaluations, maybe not even calling it evaluations, but simply providing feedback and receiving feedback, then I think principals can play that role. That’s maybe the role: It’s more of a facilitator of the evaluation that happens in school than the person who does it.”

The most challenging part of evaluations is not the amount of paperwork or the time it takes to complete. It’s the quality of the feedback, he said.

Schools with a culture of improvement and trust and that embrace feedback and mentorship may be more conducive to peer-led evaluations.

“So much of giving good feedback and having it used depends on the context and the space that’s created around it,” Ford said. “I think a good leader is going to look at a peer-led system and say… ‘Is this really appropriate right now? Are we equipped to do it in this way?’ That’s the role of the leader in this.”

But another thing to consider is the ultimate goal of evaluations. Models that center teacher growth and development may be more effective and should be prioritized over those steeped in high-stakes accountability.

“Those two purposes of evaluations—the summative and the evaluative—often can be at odds with each other, but they don’t have to be.”

Leveraging teacher expertise

The furor over teacher evaluations, which peaked during the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program, has died down. The grant prompted many states to implement complicated teacher-evaluation systems, many of which heavily weighted students’ test scores and included performance-pay incentives as well as the threat of dismissal. They transformed principals jobs seemingly overnight, requiring them to spend a lot more time in classrooms and filling out complicated and time-consuming rubrics on teacher competency.

Changes in federal policy since then have given states more flexibility on how to evaluate teachers. But many of those Obama-era policies still remain in place, Ford noted.

The analysis uses data from the 2013 TALIS [Teaching and Learning International Survey] collected from lower secondary schools (the equivalent of middle schools) in the United States and in other countries that use both administrator-led and peer-led evaluation systems. The survey asked teachers and principals in countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development about school conditions.

Ford and Lavigne analyzed data from 36,411 teachers from 2,759 schools in 11 countries. The data were collected at the time states were implementing the Race to the Top-era teacher-evaluation systems.

The researchers found that in the major areas where teachers were assessed—observation of their teaching practice, content knowledge, and analysis of student test scores—evaluations led by teachers resulted in more positive feelings of motivation, satisfaction, and changes to practice than administrator-led ones.

The study has some limitations. One is that the data are nearly a decade old at this point, and may not capture changes that have taken place since.

Another is that the researchers do not have additional insight into what the schools meant when they said “teacher-led” or “administrator-led.” For example: What exactly were teachers or principals doing during observations, feedback sessions, or content discussions, and did some schools have more expert teachers than others?

And the data were collected at the middle school level, where subject-area expertise may be more important than in elementary schools, according to the paper.

The paper recommends piloting randomized experiments of teacher-led evaluation programs to get comparison data on the effectiveness of both teacher-led and more traditional, administrator-driven evaluations.

But more important, Ford said, would be including teachers in developing these systems, a recommendation he said that’s not going to be popular.

“There is a sense that if you give somebody control over a system that’s designed to evaluate them, they’re going to exploit it, or they are going to take advantage of it,” he said.

“My recommendation would be bring teachers more into the conversation, see how they’d like to be evaluated, what they want to do,” he added. “Most teachers do not object to being evaluated; they really object, a lot of times, to the way it’s done and how they feel at the end of it.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Principals or Peers: Who Should Evaluate Teachers?


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