How Should Teachers Be Evaluated? Let’s Ask Teachers

By Kevin Hart

Whether you’re chatting at the local barber shop or watching your favorite cable news program, everyone seems to have ideas about how teachers should be evaluated and paid. But one group that never seems to be asked for its opinion on this critical issue is the teachers themselves.

It’s a damaging omission, because teachers know better than anyone what constitutes effective teaching – and they also are aware of the type of feedback that will help them improve at their jobs. So NEA put the question to its teacher-fans on Facebook – how exactly do they think teachers should be evaluated?

Dozens of teachers from across the United States weighed in on the topic, and they all shared the same message – they want a rigorous evaluation process. They believe a well-designed process can help them improve at their jobs and will ultimately benefit students.

But teachers believe any evaluation process should be fair, consistently applied, and take into account the realities of their profession.

“I’d rather see some sort of comprehensive evaluation” said New Jersey teacher Sue Hill.  “Maybe a portfolio to be reviewed by a number of people, but not test scores. People’s schedules change from year to year. Sometimes you have high achievers, while other years you have kids who struggle. I don’t ever want to have my evaluations based on test scores.”

In fact, a study released this week by the Economic Policy Institute found that test scores  alone were not reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness. The study, written by a “who’s who” of leading educational researchers, including Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and Diane Ravitch of New York Univsersity, found that there was “little or no evidence” that evaluating teachers using test scores would improve the quality of teachers in classrooms or motivate teachers.

But if test scores are not a reliable indicator of teacher performance, what is? The short answer seems to be that there is no short answer. Schools need to take a holistic, multi-factor approach to teacher evaluation, said Detroit teacher Cara Lougheed.

“It would need to combine student, parent, peer and administrative feedback,” she said. “It would also need to evaluate actual lesson plans and units, not just a day. It would have to have a self-evaluation component to reflect on personal growth.”

“Just like we should do with students, any assessment needs balance,” added Jill Dalbacka, a teacher from Duluth, MN. “If we use just one criteria, like test scores, it wouldn’t tell the whole picture. If doctors were only evaluated on their outcomes, we would have too many obstetricians and not enough oncologists.”

Kriten Lehnert Henningfield, a special education teacher from Wisconsin, said that the National Board Certification process may serve as a framework for building the more comprehensive evaluation process teachers seek. The process focuses not only on classroom instruction, but also on self evaluation and the use of open-ended, guiding questions to help teachers analyze their performance more critically and better understand where they can improve.

While the goal of an evaluation process should be to assist teachers, many teachers said they would like to see school administrators receive more support on how to conduct evaluations and use them to develop action plans that help teachers improve. Administrators frequently are asked to evaluate teachers in subjects areas about which the administrators are not particularly knowledgeable – a situation that can be frustrating for both administrators and teachers.

“I teach art and I get evaluated all the time by people who do not specialize in art,” said art teacher Jo Martyn-Fisher. “It’s mostly a revolving door of assistant principals learning the job before they go off and get their own school.”

Teachers consistently said they are willing to support rigorous assessments – as long as they are realistic and are applied fairly and consistently. They also said the tone around the teacher evaluation debate needs to change and focus more on supporting – not punishing – educators.

“If the intent is to help a teacher improve, I believe that most teachers would welcome it,” said Philip Jack, an instructor at Green River Community College in Washington. “If the intent is to ‘fire bad teachers’ or determine funding, anyone would feel angst. The next component would be teacher involvement at the local level. We need to realize that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to education is a major problem. Each program in each district faces unique challenges. It’s time to involve the real experts who work in those districts in designing the solutions.”