It’s bad enough that part of teachers’ evaluations are based on student growth. This growth, usually based on just a few poorly designed assessments and for which students are not personally held accountable, can be affected by a number of factors completely outside the control of the teacher, such as student attendance, motivation, technical issues, and whether or not a kid remembered his glasses or whether or not mom remembered his medication on the critical day.
But even more egregious is that a large percentage of a teacher’s evaluation comes from administrator observations.
A principal is given a huge checklist of “best practices,” and is supposed to assess the teacher in real-time on each of them. They might do this a couple of times each year. Of the more than 1,000 hours that teachers do their jobs in a year, their evaluation may rest on just 80 minutes of observed teaching. In other words, a teacher’s entire year is judged on about one-tenth of one percent of her efforts.
That’s not the worst of it. Because in the case of observations, it’s not what districts are doing that proves teacher evaluations are meaningless. It’s what districts are not doing.
What Districts Won’t and Never Will Do
See if you can imagine your district doing the following:
On a day in May, say a week or two before you are to receive your end-of-year evaluation, the entire staff is invited to a one-hour professional development session. The topic is “Why Your Teacher Evaluation is Credible.” You all gather inside the high school auditorium. A huge screen is hung over the stage. In the front row sits every administrator the district employs.
The Superintendent walks to the microphone and says, “Valued educators, we know that many teachers feel stress over their evaluations. Today, we are going to alleviate some of that stress. We want you to know that the tool we use to evaluate you produces consistent results, no matter who uses it.
To prove it to you, we are all going to watch a 40-minute video of a lesson. In this case, you’ll be seeing a sixth grade social studies class. Each administrator will complete an observation–just like they do for all of you–while they watch the video. When the lesson ends, I will collect each principal’s observation and I will show them to you. That way, you will see that no matter who uses the tool it produces very similar results. You’ll know that your teacher evaluation is a true reflection of your abilities as an educator, and not the subjective result of an unproven process that encourages you to employ different strategies based solely on the whims and preferences of the person who happens to be your supervisor this year.”
At which point the video starts and the principals start tapping things on their iPads.
The fact that none of the above happens in any district I know of (and never will) tells teachers everything they need to know about the objectivity of the observations they’re forced to endure and are asked to believe in.
If you have a system that relies on the opinions and values of the individuals doing the scoring then you have a system that can’t be trusted.
Treat Teachers Like Gymnasts
Gymnastics recognizes this. Gymnastics, like teaching, is more art than science. Two people watching the same routine can honestly disagree about which was better. That’s why gymnasts are scored by multiple judges who have deep knowledge of the sport and receive rigorous training on how to evaluate routines. They’re given strict guidelines and add points for required elements and difficulty, while deducting for execution and artistry.*
And still they don’t agree. That’s why the high and low scores are thrown out and the rest are averaged. FIG recognizes that relying on the judgment of one person ruins the credibility of their sport. No viewer would trust the results of a gymnastics competition that was judged by a single person. The gymnasts wouldn’t trust those results, either.
Neither should teachers. It says something that we care more about getting it right for gymnasts than for teachers. It says something that school districts will never allow its teachers to see how subjective their administrators’ observations truly are. It says something that American teachers’ jobs are in the hands of one judge, who bases his or her evaluation on one-tenth of one percent of a teachers’ working hours.
Better hope you don’t get the Russian.**
* I simplified Olympic gymnastics’ scoring for ease of reading.
** I’ve got nothing against Russians, except that they cheat in the Olympics.
I wrote more about teacher evaluations here: