Have We Lost the Real Purpose of Teacher Evaluation?

teacher evaluation

Teacher evaluation has historically addressed two objectives: improving performance and bringing about the dismissal of those judged as inadequate or nonproductive. These two purposes are in conflict. When the threat of criticism and/or dismissal is a possible outcome of the evaluation, improvement is thwarted and the worker’s sense of security is eroded.

I do not mean to imply that dismissal may never be necessary. Rather, the two purposes of evaluation must remain distinct, and the teacher should never have any doubt about which purpose is driving an evaluation. Dismissal is rare in education but the fear that evaluation brings is pervasive. If we hope to dramatically improve our schools, the fear of dismissal must be eliminated for the vast majority of teachers who are performing satisfactorily. 

Noted author and consultant W. Edwards Deming always advised managers to “Eliminate Fear in the Workplace.” An insecure worker will not seek assistance from others, particularly from a supervisor who possesses the power of dismissal. The worker fears that the request for assistance will be viewed as an admission of weakness. In education, this problem is exacerbated by two distinct factors: the definition of acceptable performance is either relatively vague or expectations are excessively prescriptive. In either case, teachers are frequently unsure about what is expected and how to fulfill expectations.

Even a teacher whose performance is satisfactory or exemplary may harbor self-doubts. Deming said, “It is not enough to do your best. You must first know what to do and then do your best.” Facilitating this understanding of expectations is an important role for school leaders. Processes, procedures, and policies must be clearly defined. The use of rubrics, checklists, and other tools can clarify levels of performance. Ideally, these should be developed with the teacher. Even when teacher input is not possible (such as expectations from the district, state, or national level), it is vital that standards are communicated and understood. This provides the essential information teachers need to evaluate their performance relative to the expectations, and for school leaders to initiate conversations related to teacher improvement.

The primary purpose of teacher evaluation is personal and professional growth that leads to improved performance. The principal (or other evaluator) acts as a facilitator for each teacher, just as the teacher serves as a facilitator for students in the classroom. The principal makes it clear that the evaluation or walk-through is part of a continuous improvement cycle designed to help the teacher. As the school leader, the principal plays an active role in the teacher’s professional growth. This may include the following: asking questions that help the teacher self-evaluate; helping the teacher design a plan for improvement; and providing opportunities for professional development. It is crucial that the school leader be perceived as a facilitator of improvement, rather than an enforcer of directives.

Unless an individual finds value in external expectations and evaluations, there is little likelihood that they will lead to quality work. The key to external evaluation is involving the individual being evaluated and creating value in the experience, including feedback and developmental planning. The most important element of effective evaluation for personal improvement, especially in a social profession like teaching, is self-evaluation. Self-evaluation is vital for a teacher’s professional growth because no other person can observe the teacher’s performance often enough to document total classroom interactions and because there is no valid and reliable way to measure the totality of student learning. Teacher self-evaluation is especially vital in a school where teachers ask the students to self-evaluate.

Because the skill of self-evaluation is so critical to the teaching profession, the first priority of an evaluation should be to help each teacher develop the skills to engage in continual self-evaluation leading to personal and professional growth.

An emphasis on self-evaluation requires us to ask the following; “If all you do is self-evaluate, how do you know what you don’t know?

External evaluation and information are crucial to our learning and growth. The external evaluation doesn’t “make” us do, think, or feel anything. We take the external information and use the self-evaluation process to determine if we will use the information we are getting.

External evaluation exists in nearly every setting. For example:

  • Teachers provide needed instruction and feedback to their students.  Without this, students may not learn properly or may practice incorrect methods.
  • Coaches correct actions to improve skills their players have not yet mastered.
  • Parents provide instruction and limits to teach their children the values and behaviors that they expect.
  • Many professions require external certifications in order to ensure standards of safety and competence are met.

Three factors determine the effectiveness of external evaluation:

1.     Does it benefit the learner?   (In this case, the teacher)

a.     How will the evaluation be used?

b.    Does the learner have a chance to improve the rating, grade, or score?

2.     Is it wanted / asked for?

a.     Does the teacher “respect” the evaluator?

b.    Does the rating, grade, or score mean anything to the teacher?

3.     Does the evaluation give the learner the information needed to make the necessary improvements?

a.     Are specific improvement strategies identified?

b.    Are opportunities available for the teacher to learn and practice these strategies?

Another important aspect is the manner in which information is shared with the teacher.

One suggestion for increasing meaningful methods of external evaluation is to survey the individual(s) who will be evaluated.  Questions, such as the following, provide a base from which to build useful, meaningful evaluations.

1.    What does your ideal performance review look or sound like?

a.    What would you like it to say?

b.    What knowledge and skills would be recognized?

c.     What accomplishments would be included?

2.    What type of environment do you work best in?

a.    Do you prefer to work alone, or as part of a team?  Explain.

b.    On a scale of 1 to 10, how autonomous would you prefer your job to

i.     How often do you think you should report your progress?

 ii.     How would you like to report your progress?

3.    What expectations do you have of yourself?

a.    What expectations do you think that the company has of you?

b.    What expectations seem reasonable to you?

c.     What expectations don’t seem reasonable to you?

d.    How do you reconcile any differences between the two?

4.    What type of evaluation is most helpful for you?

a.    How would you like to receive your observation feedback?

b.    How would you like me to present your strengths?

c.     How would you like me to address your opportunities for improvement?

For teacher evaluations to be effective, the focus must be on personal and professional growth that leads to improved performance. When fear is present or when teachers perceive evaluations as little more than “hoops” to be jumped through, there is virtually no chance for evaluation to be useful. Our teachers and students deserve an evaluation system that improves teacher performance and student learning.