Some unpopular thoughts on teacher evaluation

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, June 11, 2017

I’ve been working on teacher evaluation for most of my career as a teacher, administrator, and teacher educator; first being evaluated, then doing the evaluation as an assistant principal and subject area coordinator, then helping design a state-wide beginning teacher evaluation initiative. After nearly 40 years in education, all I can say is that the current system is the worst I’ve ever seen.

 

If the goal of these systems was to get rid of the so-called “bad teachers” that supposedly exist in great numbers in our schools, it has been spectacularly ineffective. Every form of teacher evaluation winds up identifying only between 1-3% of teachers as “ineffective”–yet we continue to spend precious money and time in the vain attempt to purge the system of these “bad teachers”.

Here’s the truth–it’s a colossal waste of time to keep pouring good money after bad in this attempt. Why?

Not because there are zero weak teachers–there are some, though as most will acknowledge, a surprisingly small number.

Because bad teachers self-select, and weed themselves out of the classroom well before any evaluation system “catches” them. Why?

Because the job is too hard to do it without finding any level of satisfaction or fulfillment–and the money isn’t good enough to keep them in the classroom, unlike other jobs where people report low satisfaction, but remain in the job for the financial rewards.

Here’s another truth–we know quite a lot about how to evaluate teachers. And we, quite simply, don’t have the stomach to do it. Why?

Because it requires time, money, and effort. It also requires knowledgeable experts to spend copious amounts of time in teachers’ classrooms, watching them teach, talking about teaching, providing professional development to address the teacher’s reflections on their practice, and targeted feedback on matters of content, pedagogy, and instruction.

I’ve helped design such a system, and even though it wasn’t perfect, it worked better than just about any other approach. It still didn’t “catch” large numbers of bad teachers, though. Why?

Because they just don’t exist.

What this approach to teacher evaluation did do was empower those teachers to “own” their own practice, and to be responsible for their own improvement. It was also a valuable form of professional development for the experienced teachers who served as the “evaluators,” many of whom reported that they learned more about teaching from participating in the process than from other forms of professional development.

You know what isn’t very useful? For non-experts to provide their “feedback” on teacher quality–which in our current environment is most of what we get. All-knowing policy pronouncements from folks who have never attended a public school, never sent their own children to a public school, have no degrees in education, and have never taught anyone anything, but are now–because of how much wealth they have squirreled away, in positions of authority over public education in our country. (Psst…that’s you, Betsy…)

At the risk of sounding rude and condescending, unless it’s about providing evidence of a teacher abusing a child or committing some sort of crime against a child–in which case, as a court-mandate reporter, I’m obligated to go to law enforcement with those claims–I really am not interested in “your thoughts” about how well you think your kid’s teacher is doing. because you don’t know. Why?

Because the teacher one parent thinks is awful, another parent thinks is a hero. It’s why we don’t have the relatives of crime victims serve as the judge and jury for the persons suspected of committing those crimes.

Because they aren’t objective–and they aren’t supposed to be. Parents are supposed to see the world through their kids’ eyes. It’s not their job to evaluate teachers. And unless you are a teacher, or an administrator in your kid’s school, it’s not your job either.

I’ve been teaching since 1980, and get asked to do evaluations of music teachers all the time–and I always say no. Why?

Not because I don’t know what “good teaching” looks like–I do. But that’s just *my* opinion of what good teaching looks–or sounds–like. Because I don’t feel qualified to judge another teacher if I haven’t worked in their context; understand their students, their colleagues and principals, understand their building and district “culture”, who had their job before they did, what are the community’s expectations, what that teacher’s background is, and dozens of other specifics that can’t be captured on the 4-point scale we currently use.

And now, two final notes:

With respect to parents as “consumers”: When you make this comparison it only reveals your misunderstanding of the complexity of teaching and learning. Education is not a business. And it should not be run like one.

My kids have had teachers I thought were great, and ones I didn’t think were so hot. It happens. And when it does, it’s my job to do what I can to help my child keep learning. Not to pretend I know better than them how to do their job–because guess what? I don’t. And neither do you.

With respect to improving parental involvement: You know what teachers want you to do?

  • help their kids do their home work
  • make sure they practice their instruments
  • make sure they get to all school events, concerts, plays, sporting events, etc.
  • travel with them
  • take them to museums and art galleries
  • watch movies
  • read to them
  • feed them healthy meals
  • spoil them with ice cream
  • sing to them
  • play with them
  • let them know that all those tests they are forced to take don’t tell us anything about how much they know, or who they are

Try to support what their teachers do with them for 7-8 hours per day. And tell them that they should respect their teachers–and model that respect by not complaining about them at home in front of their kids.

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.