Evaluate This

Peter Cohee

A decade spent writing evaluations of public school teachers has brought me to this disillusion: evaluations as they are don't make teachers better, don't get rid of bad teachers, aren't needed by good teachers, and don't improve schools or student learning. They tend to induce cynicism and to engender ill will between the teacher and the evaluator. They are an almost complete waste of the enormous time, energy, and money spent on them. There, I’ve said it. Now I must tell you why.

First, one must use a pre-written form in writing an evaluation. It is officially called an “instrument” (reminds one of a colonoscopy). This document forces upon the evaluator certain criteria, like them or not. Those who write evaluation forms are not those who must use them in writing evaluations or in being evaluated. Program directors and department chairs—those who are closest to the subject, the teachers, and the students—are not involved in the composition of these masterpieces. Nor do teachers themselves have any part. Every detail is fiercely negotiated between lawyers representing now the teachers’ union, now the school department.  

Their overall design follows whatever pre-packaged off-the-shelf school improvement program the school department is currently under contract to. These are marketed as acronym-able versions of the "research" of some Ed. D.-turned-entrepreneur or other.  They imitate the success-by-numbers concept of Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. So you get the Eight Dimensions of This and the Six Essentials of That and so on. These pedagogical pundits offer warmed-over progressivist theories of the early 20th century adapted to the “Excellence for All” utopian lunacy of our demotic age.  They affect a scientism that reduces teaching to “methodologies” and “strategies” with which any teacher can succeed, regardless of subject-matter competence. 

Each new consultancy brings a fresh evaluation form with shifted standards.  I’ll give you a good example.  The first criterion of the evaluation instrument in use when I came to Boston in 1999 read “The teacher shows a good understanding of the subject matter and children to be taught.”  Not mastery, mind you, not deep and broad knowledge, but “a good understanding.”  Not a very high qualification, but heck, at least it topped the list.  The present form places the teacher’s content knowledge of the subject as the sixth of eight "dimensions."  Under that rubric the first item reads “Integrate[s] current and accurate content knowledge in lessons.”  Not only has the teacher’s knowledge of the subject been moved from first to sixth place, but “integrate” is the new “shows.” And what does “integrate knowledge” mean, anyway?  The replacement of “good” with “current and accurate” seems a step up, but beware of a legalistic subtlety here.  If I’m evaluating a teacher who makes mistake after mistake but who does “integrate current and accurate knowledge” from time to time in some way or other, I cannot press the case that the teacher doesn’t know her stuff.  She's not required to.

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien. It is yet another institutional mythology that policies, procedures, and documentary protocols improve people.  Even while they express low expectations of the teacher’s subject knowledge, evaluation instruments pretend belief in the perfectible teacher.  But their pseudo-scientific and materialistic reductionism takes no account of the motives, personality, or identity of the teacher as a real human being.  I’ve observed some marvelous teaching that conforms to no artificial prescriptions.  I’ve also seen altogether mediocre teaching that meets every formal requirement.   Authentic teaching is not a fixed system of prescribed techniques.  It’s a calling, a gift, its practice an art.  But it also involves very complex personal motivations.  Some want to prolong their own adolescence; some have a too-strong need to be needed or to have an audience, however captive; some emulate a beloved teacher or remember a hated one with too much vehemence.  Nor is any account taken of the aging teacher who suffers loss of energy, no longer cares about the subject, feels bypassed by changing technology and popular culture, who pines for things that once were as a paradise lost, and who is just hanging on until full retirement age.   But the best teaching is always done by those who, despite all their human quirkiness, have an undying passion for their subject itself.

In short, once the pedagogical scientists, the lawyers, and the sociopolitical ideologues have finished, the final product is a mess.  It has no rational organization, no humane sincerity, no wisdom derived from authentic experience.  It's a silly, feeble thing.

Our second concern is that no effective consequences or meaningful rewards follow evaluation.   Because there can be no demotion of teachers (they either teach or they don’t), the only effective consequence is termination.  In the present system that is nearly impossible.  This is now so chiefly because dismissal is grievable and arbitrable (the assumption being that to fire anyone automatically violates a contract).  And arbitration can be very expensive, the outcome doubtful.  The unsatisfactory teacher’s abilities will very seldom be black-and-white clear; they will always be chiaroscuro, and there is the chief problem in the typical evaluation form.  Politically correct criteria, educationese mumbo-jumbo, weasel words and legalistic obfuscations are all there to prevent, not to help, the forceful application of clear and high academic standards.  These make it much easier for the union to fight, fang and claw, the termination of even the patently worst teacher; if it doesn’t, its chieftains will lose the confidence—and votes—of their loyalists.  The just firing of an incompetent person does more to improve morale than almost anything else; the helpless retention of same depresses it considerably.  “The office of teacher in the average American school is perhaps the only one in the world that can be retained indefinitely in spite of the grossest negligence and incompetency.” So said Joseph Meyer Rice.  In 1893.  Plus ça change and all that.

As for rewards following positive review, the only one presently offered is continued employment, which, if you are permanent (i.e. tenured), you get anyway.  This includes gradually increasing salary levels worked out in collectively bargained agreements.  Your own hard work, energy, skill, and knowledge have no direct relation to your pay increase.  For that you owe your allegiance to the union and thanks to its negotiators.  But you also notice that, for this very reason, others who do not have your qualities or commitment are paid at the same scale.  Consider the effect of that on your instinct for workmanship.

Third, evaluation is not tied to measurable and meaningful results, that is, what have students learned, and how well?  The current form—where it is concerned at all with the actual quality of teaching subject matter—deals with procedure, not results.  There is only one way to get these results: high-quality high-stakes examinations or demonstrations that are designed by teachers, that are independently administered and independently entered into student records, and that count heavily in students’ final marks.  This is not likely to happen.  But it is certainly possible.  A very clear syllabus and set of expectations should be set and made known to all, especially to students and families.  Practice exercises and exams should be devised that closely model the real thing.  A passing grade should be at least a C; let’s call it 70%.  A do-over should be allowed if the first attempt is close.  Gross results should be made public, outstanding teachers and students praised.  Then you will have created a proper competitive spirit, without which excellence is impossible.

The present evaluation procedure fails because it attempts to substitute the false for the real.  Protocol does not replace authentic leadership, genuine praise, meaningful rewards and penalties, or objective results.  I do still believe that evaluation is necessary and can be both meaningful and effective.  Here are a few more suggestions for improving the system and its forms.

First, boot the lawyers, the rented educationists, and the starry-eyed social reformers out of the process.  Teachers and those who actually carry out the evaluation should write the needed document and revise and improve it.  Any such form should be simple, clear, and sincere, free of jargon, gibberish, and cant.  It should be only one or two pages in length.  Two parts are needed: in-class performance and out-of-class performance, that is, the teaching itself and the other associated school duties and responsibilities. With regard to teaching per se, a teacher’s command of his or her subject must be the foremost criterion.  If not, all other effort is wasted.  And evaluation should not depend solely on the highly artificial classroom observation visit.  Teachers should play a more active part in it.  Given meaningful and high but realistic standards and expectations, they should give specific and concrete examples of when and how they meet them.  It should be an opportunity for the teacher's genuine self-reflection and continuing self-understanding.  Next, connect evaluation directly with either termination or rewards on the one hand and with student test results on the other.  One way to do this would be to institute a 5-year contract for everyone, with evaluation in the first, third, and fifth years—unless there are obvious problems.  Successful evaluation and consistently good student scores would carry a bonus, salary increase, or both.  Partially or fully unsatisfactory evaluation or a pattern of consistently lower student scores, ceteris paribus, should result in denial, in whole or in part, of these compensations.  Dismissal should be more forceful and not subject to arbitration unless there is a reasonable claim that some civil right or contract term has been violated.

I believe these things are needed and possible, though I am not sanguine about their realization.  I say that because we as a nation want school—and teachers—to be and do too many things, and we often disagree violently about those. Limits are what make anything effective.  The more we expect teachers to be parents, social workers, priests, psychiatrists, and best friends, the less right we have to expect them to be what they should be: very good instructors.  And if we can't insist on a commanding knowledge and the forceful conveyance of it to young minds, we have no right nor any reason to evaluate teachers at all.  I am certain of this, though: universal, mandatory, heterogeneous, progressivist, politically correct, unionized public schooling can never be more than mediocre.  Its object is commonality, and commonality and excellence don’t pair well.  They are at odds with one another.  Rather like liberty and equality, the more of one you have, you have less of the other.

Peter Cohee teaches in the Classics program at Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • Share

Most Commented

September 16, 2019

Slavery Did Not Make America Rich

'King Cotton' isn't King

September 18, 2019

Most Read

January 03, 2011

May 26, 2010