Making teacher evaluation meaningful

Marcus Winters says the way we currently evaluate teachers is useless because it ignores whether students are learning:

In 2007, only 57 percent of fourth graders in New York City and 44 percent of fourth graders in Chicago could claim even basic literacy according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Yet, in the same year, less than 2 percent of New York’s teachers and less than 1 percent of Chicago’s teachers were deemed “unsatisfactory” in their official evaluations. Clearly, something is missing here.

Current public-school evaluation systems do not distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers. We can dramatically improve these systems by thoughtfully incorporating information gained from student performance on standardized tests.

Winters doesn’t argue that student achievement should be the sole measurement of teacher performance, but that ignoring it altogether makes the evaluation process meaningless. He puts some of the blame at the feet of teachers unions, who make reasonable reforms “frustratingly difficult.” He says teacher observations happen too infrequently and are unreliable since they are usually announced in advance, giving the teacher a chance to stage a performance.

Further, principals are reluctant to rock the boat by publically deeming a teacher “unsatisfactory,” particularly since (1) they can’t remove a tenured teacher, no matter how unsatisfactory his performance, (2) the rarity of the distinction implies the teacher is not only “unsatisfactory” but egregiously incompetent, which is often a stronger message than the principal intends to send, and (3) the principal himself is not directly accountable for the school’s performance, giving him little incentive to enrage his teaching staff by pointing out the poor performance of a colleague.

I’ve been discussing teacher evaluations with a friend who recently became an administrator. Her school is adopting something called the “three-minute walk-through,” the idea of which is to take frequent “snap shots” of what a teacher is doing rather than rely on longer, infrequent observations. I can see the logic behind this, but a scan of the materials they gave her hasn’t left me convinced that this is going to make a real difference.

Observations are important. Teachers need accountability as much as anyone else. But observations, even when they aren’t stage performances, provide limited information. They can be unreliable, especially when the observer has little motivation to make them meaningful or has no concept of what good teaching looks like.

At bottom, an observation can’t tell you whether the kids are learning and, at bottom, that’s what really counts.

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