Let's Talk About Teacher Evaluation

Teacher-blogger Peter Greene (“Curmudgucation”) asks, what is the purpose of evaluation? He offers the following seven options along with editorial commentary, which is worth reading if your literary tastes run to the spicy:
  1. To find bad teachers.
  2. To find good teachers.
  3. To guide and support teachers.
  4. To compare teachers.
  5. To let the taxpayers know whether or not they’re getting their money’s worth.
  6. To give teachers a clear set of expectations.
  7. To make the complex look simple.
The same day Greene’s blog appeared, Charlotte Danielson, who created a widely used framework to evaluate teachers, essentially answered Greene’s question in a commentary in Edweek. In her words:
Any system must be able to identify seriously underperforming teachers and be designed to promote professional learning.
(This sounds like items #1, #3 and #6 on Greene’s list.) She goes on to say:
There is professional consensus that the number of teachers whose practice is below standard is very small, probably no more than 6 percent of the total.
She then says:
Personnel policies for the teachers not practicing below standard—approximately 94 percent of them—would have, at their core, a focus on professional development, replacing the emphasis on ratings with one on learning.
(Again, this sounds like items #3 and #6 on Greene’s list.) Danielson also says:
Experienced teachers in good standing should be eligible to apply for teacher-leadership positions, such as mentor, instructional coach, or team leader. These positions may carry enhanced compensation or have released time during the regular school day.
(Item #2 on Greene’s list.) She adds, however, “Career teachers should be assessed periodically to ensure they are still in good standing,” which suggests that even tenured teachers in mid-career should be evaluated now and then to see if they are still up to snuff. (Item #1.) Both Greene and Danielson lament the inclination to mathematically quantify good teaching by linking teacher evaluation in part to student learning gains, which has been a policy goal of the Obama Administration and much of the reform community. It’s fair to say that this policy has fueled much of the backlash among teachers to standardized testing. A few weeks back I attended a monthly forum at Chicago’s coolest little bar, the Hideout, featuring two Chicago public school teachers being interviewed by two of Chicago’s premier journalists/opinion writers, Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke. It was testing season and test-bashing was in full swing. Dumke allowed that teachers don’t want to be accountable for student test scores but then asked what do they want to be accountable for. One teacher suggested student work, which certainly seems reasonable if subjective, and inadequate by itself. Danielson agrees that “analysis of student work” should be in the mix. The other teacher suggested student feedback in the form of surveys like this one from New York. While student feedback seems hugely important, I worry that struggling teachers might inflate their ratings with inflated grades or other incentives. Nevertheless, student feedback should also be in the mix along with observation, peer feedback, etc. Getting back to Greene’s opening question about the purpose, Danielson seems to be saying it’s to distinguish good teaching from bad before granting tenure and to “ensure good teaching” broadly after tenure is granted. No argument here but answering Greene’s question about the purpose of evaluation still leaves open Dumke’s question, i.e., what should teachers be accountable for?
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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