Teacher Evaluation

The Unrealized Maine Classroom is an ongoing conversation about what it takes to incorporate innovation and excellence into the lessons taught in public schools, in order that we engage and even inspire public school students in this digital age.  I have vowed to keep the conversation positive, as we all know that whining about how everything is wrong in education makes for a dull read and yields few solutions. The truth is, there are a lot of things that need to change in our public schools, and some require specific attention.  In my opinion, teacher evaluation trends are among them.  Spoiler: It’s not all positive.  Please share your thoughts, whether they are in agreement with mine or not, by commenting on this post, or by visiting the Facebook Page (and ‘liking’ the Facebook page, which makes it more likely you will be aware of the conversation as it evolves).  It’s a hot topic, and I continue to learn a great deal from the responses I get from readers.

Springtime brings to public school principals the impossible task of objectively evaluating teachers’ performance throughout the year.  I use the word, impossible, not due to the daunting number of observations and teacher meetings principals and assistant principals must conduct from September to June, all while performing the many other essential duties of a building administrator.  I use that word because it is a fact; objectively evaluating teacher performance is literally impossible to do. This is a touchy subject for some, so I must be careful to make my points extra clear. I will use bullets for emphasis and clarity.  Explanations of those points will follow each bulleted statement.

  • Teachers must be evaluated on a regular basis to determine they are fit for classroom instruction.  

It is true with any job, really, and it is why we have supervisors.  Supervisors ideally are experts at the job being performed by the people they are supervising (there will be another bullet addressing this in greater detail).  In the case of classroom teaching, the learning and well-being of children are at stake, so assuring that students are under the care and instruction of qualified, capable teachers is extremely important.   From the perspective of the teacher being evaluated, this can be a cause for anxiety, but it shouldn’t.  Evaluation-induced anxiety among teachers either happens because a.) the teacher being evaluated is unsure of whether or not he or she has performed satisfactorily, which is a valid concern for some, or b.) the teacher being evaluated is concerned the evaluation process may unfairly target him or her, which is, unfortunately, also a valid concern.  Read on to see why. Nevertheless, evaluation of teachers is necessary for schools to develop and maintain intended outcomes.  Ideally, those outcomes involve innovation, engagement and inspiration, and ultimately academic excellence.  

  • Some teachers, though not many, are indeed unfit for classroom instruction.

As in any profession, some people aren’t up for the task of teaching.  And as in any profession, it is rare when someone who has applied for a position, is recommended for a position, and gets hired for a position, ends up being so bad at it that he or she is deemed unfit to maintain that position.  We are, remember, talking about the professional world here.  Every classroom teacher went to college and/or graduate school to become a teacher, and became certified by the state as a “highly qualified” teacher.  Every teacher hired into a school system had references checked, had at least one rigorous interview, and has at least two semesters of classroom experience under his or her belt.  In order for an individual to go through that process and still be deemed by his or her supervisors to be unfit for classroom instruction, something very wrong must have happened. We know that such things do happen; the news media loves to report such instances. I once conducted an experiment where I searched the words “teacher” and “teachers” in the online archives of foxnews.com, cnn.com, and npr.com.  The vast majority of news stories that arose as results, especially from the first two sources, were negative stories where teachers had done awful things.  A teacher punched a student.  A teacher abused a student.  A teacher was caught doing something illegal at home, in public, or at work.  Sometimes the news stories are controversial, like when a middle school teacher assigns a book with an adult theme, or when teachers go on strike.  There are stories in the media about teachers who win awards and achieve recognition for greatness, but they are much less common. The news media is only partly to blame for the often less than stellar impression of public school teachers.  Common sense also tells us that if it is true American students are not performing as well as students in other countries in international assessments, something must be wrong with the instruction they receive.  And if something is wrong with their instruction, it is not too outside the realm of reason to blame the teachers who deliver the instruction.   Of course there are other factors that contribute to poor performance on student assessments besides quality of instruction, like home environment, quality of curriculum, school culture, school schedules, attendance, physical wellness, malfunctioning technology, neighborhood poverty/ distribution of wealth from one district to the next, local, state and federal funding of education, and even test fatigue, but one can understand why it is easier to blame the teachers for underperforming students.  President Obama himself, among other prominent politicians and national leaders(), has publicly decried bad teaching and promoted the idea that firing all these folks unfit for the classroom will go a long way toward reforming our education system.  

  • Determining whether a teacher has potential to overcome difficulties is a challenge, both for evaluators and for teachers themselves.

More common than teachers unfit for classroom instruction are teachers who struggle with one or more of the aforementioned conditions that contribute to poor student performance.  In Maine and much of America, what one experiences in a classroom setting varies dramatically from district to district, and sometimes from classroom to classroom.  It is almost guaranteed that a teacher new to the profession will experience serious difficulty during his or her first year, question why he or she chose to become a teacher, and consider ditching the profession early. Whether or not that teacher makes it through his or her first couple of years teaching could be a matter of any number of factors.    A teacher’s most strict critic is often the teacher him or herself, and for good reason. One asks of one’s self, Am I good at this?  Can I get good at this? and, Is this job right for me?  If a teacher determines he or she can get better at teaching, that teacher has mastered a growth mindset, which is a large part of what evaluators look for in a teacher.  But if a teacher can also determine that teaching is indeed the right line of work for the teacher, than a commitment has been made to stay the course and march onward.  Most teachers make this commitment and are wholly capable of growing and improving their practice over time.   Something that is extremely difficult for evaluators to do is determine if a teacher’s sub-par performance is due to inexperience (or naivete), difficult environmental circumstances, or hopeless incompetence.  In all three cases, the benefit of the doubt should be given, considering the district hired the teacher in the first place. Every professional deserves an opportunity to be supported to make changes in his or her performance.  In the rare cases of incompetence, measures must be taken. Principals must gather evidence and take steps toward dismissal, which is time consuming, uncomfortable, and often upsetting to the teaching community.  It must be done, but the bottom line is it should be rare, rare, rare.  The vast majority of struggling teachers, like the vast majority of old dogs, can be taught new tricks and learn how to accommodate to new expectations with the right kind of professional support.  

  • Those who evaluate teachers should be expert, master teachers themselves.

This may be common sense, but it isn’t necessarily common practice.  I can’t blame any teacher who takes an early path to administration and a bigger paycheck if that path is available to them.  Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of school administrators supervising and evaluating teachers with very little teaching experience themselves.   When evaluators without teaching experience evaluate teachers, they must rely on rubrics to determine what is good teaching practice and what isn’t.  Rubrics are calculators, not people.  While rubrics are frequently worshipped by educators, they lack knowledge of environment, awareness of circumstances, teaching experience, as well as empathy and compassion, and aren’t as reliable as real human beings, even though humans tend to be subjective creatures.  I trust a rubric to “drive” my decision making as much as I trust a self-driving car to get me to work while I nap in the back.  If I ever ride in one of those things, I will keep my eye on the road and my hands near the wheel.  It will be a collaborative effort.

  • There are a great many factors that make objective determination of teacher effectiveness impossible.

Using rubrics, student tests, student surveys, and colleague surveys can help make visible a pattern of behaviors or outcomes over a period of years.   These tools can help lend evidence toward whether or not a teacher is fit for classroom instruction, but the data derived from these tools can never be considered objective or reliable. Therefore such data should never be a deciding factor which can determine whether or not a teacher is dismissed.  Newly adopted evaluation protocols often incorporate student test scores as a portion of an overall “score” to determine whether or not a teacher earns his or her contract renewal.  For example, such an evaluation protocol might incorporate student test scores to account for 20% of a teacher’s evaluation “score.”   The other 80% might come from rubric scores calculated from a combination of teacher observations conducted by principals, evidence portfolios compiled by teachers, student surveys, and colleague surveys.   Many factors that can impact student test scores, as mentioned earlier, that have little or nothing to do with instructional technique and practices.  In a scenario where a teacher has an otherwise mediocre but passable evaluation, test scores could take them below the threshold required for retaining employment status.  Even in the event this happens two or three years in a row, one has to wonder if the process is completely reliable.   Here is another example of why I really dislike the term, data driven.  It is impossible to make a decision about a teacher’s dismissal that is entirely driven by data.  Is a pattern of data that suggests a teacher may be unfit for classroom instruction useful in helping a supervisor make a decision regarding future employment?  Yes, it is, and it should be.  Data in the form of a pattern of test scores and evaluation scores is certainly appropriate for informing the decision making process, but in no way should that information be taken as reliable and objective and used as proof of a teacher’s incompetence.  

  • The process of evaluating teachers is, and should be, subjective.

There is absolutely no getting around this.  Excepting teachers who have violated school policy or their employment contract, one cannot gather enough evidence over any reasonable amount of time to make a truly objective case that someone is unfit to teach.  Moreover, even when the observations, test scores, student and colleague surveys all point toward a teacher not pulling his or her weight, a supervisor must use his or her subjective judgment to determine whether the teacher is incapable of pulling his or her weight, or is disadvantaged in his or her assignment, or simply needs support.   One way professionals show appreciation of one another is to say, “I’d be lost without you.”  Sometimes the job one person does can be the thin line between a teacher who excels in the classroom and one who struggles.  It can be a teaching partner next door, or it can be an educational technician who supports struggling learners during a lesson.  I’d be lost without you is sometimes a true statement. When teachers lose valued resources due to budget cuts or other personnel decisions beyond their control, things can go downhill fast.  Early retirement begins to look more attractive to veteran teachers who endure such changes, but others don’t have that option.  Classroom instruction is impacted, observations suffer, test scores drop.  A supervising administrator needs to consider such factors before heading down the path of making a case for dismissal.  He or she might ask, is this teacher struggling because of something that was imposed on him or her?  Can this teacher adapt with the right support system?  Am I (or is the district) able to provide that support system?   Again, firing teachers who are unfit for classroom instruction should be a very, very rare scenario.  But when it happens, there should be no hiding the fact that subjective judgment is involved.  This is why principals who hire and fire teachers really should be expert, master teachers themselves.   

  • The process of evaluating teachers should never involve additional work for the teacher.

In a district where I once taught, the newly adopted teacher evaluation program required that every teacher put together an extensive portfolio with seventeen separate categories of evidence of teacher effectiveness.  Despite being urged not to make our portfolios too thick, I recall the process being both a major hassle and a major source of stress.  Requiring classroom teachers to spend additional hours of professional time gathering evidence for their own evaluations is inappropriate for two reasons.  First, it is the work of a supervisor to evaluate an employee, and not the work of the employee to evaluate him or herself.  Self-reflection should be a part of the conversation during a summative evaluation meeting, but requiring teachers to gather evidence is pawning administrative responsibilities off to teachers.  Second, teachers have absolutely zero available professional time for such added tasks, tasks that will ultimately interfere with student learning.  The process is counter-intuitive, and a bit of an insult to injury for teachers when it comes to time management and the pressure to perform. There are other factors that complicate the problem of teacher evaluations.  Teacher education programs need to do their part to churn out confident and capable new teachers, to reduce the risk of bringing someone on who might look good on paper, but in reality lacks what it takes to succeed in the classroom.   Teacher education will be a topic for another day, but there is growing sentiment that in some cases, teachers are graduating certification programs and entering the profession unprepared for the job.  The fewer unprepared teachers in the teaching profession, the less time, energy and money school systems will have to devote to evaluating, supporting, or trying to fire struggling teachers. Allocation and distribution of professional time for teachers ultimately plays a major role as well.  When a teacher is expected to teach five different lessons back-to-back every day of the week without time between lessons to plan, prepare, debrief, and evaluate their students during the work day, an adult of average work ethic is set up for immediate failure.   Enforcing a “culture of accountability” with a burdensome, unreliable, intimidating and unfair evaluation system is not going to fix that.   It is precisely that culture of accountability that needs to be done away with in order to usher in a culture of excellence and innovation in public schools.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I am a math strategist in RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal and Durham, Maine), and have been teaching for ten years. These days I help oversee the math curriculum in my district and I coach and support teachers (mostly K-6) in their math instruction. My interests in education extend far beyond math, though.. I have been a passionate writer and musician since I was a young child. I have a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.