12/14/2010 10:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Evaluation Old School

My rookie teaching assignment in the fall of 1993--the assignment to which I still report each day--was at an alternative high school in South Los Angeles. I was hired in late September after the students had run two other instructors from the classroom. It was a little intimidating to discover that, but I realized, almost immediately, that all I had to do to survive each day was to care about the students and express that by listening to them, recognizing each of them as an individual worthy of my respect and by working hard to give them an English class that was engaging, challenging, real and that helped them become readers and writers. In short, they just wanted me to do my job really well. They didn't say it, of course, and they tested me in all the usual--often brutal--ways, but the real test was in how they felt about what they were learning.

I was proud to be passing those daily evaluations--prouder than I will ever be of any professional evaluation from an administrator or anyone else. Actually, that first year, my principal never came in my room. She didn't have to. She saw me in the late afternoons hovering over the dilapidated photocopier or sitting at my desk marking papers, assisting seniors with their personal statements for college, or out on the cracked asphalt of the bone yard helping organize and coach the school's first basketball team. But the strongest evidence that I was performing satisfactorily as a teacher was probably the fact that I didn't become the third teacher that semester to get driven out by the students.

I don't suppose that on a large scale this method of evaluation would be practical or reliable--for many reasons too obvious to bother with--and it probably wouldn't be fair either, though there was something beautiful about the honesty of it and the empowerment to these otherwise disempowered inner-city children.

Back then, standardized test scores were not the political currency they've since become, though there was already a lot of talk about "accountability" and about merit pay. Almost a decade later, my colleagues and I were congratulated by the LA Unified School District for our exceptional teaching--as demonstrated by the state test scores of our students the previous spring--and informed that we were going to receive bonuses.

An assistant superintendent attended our back to school meeting and promised that we'd be receiving cash bonuses for our accomplishment. We were pleased but also baffled--no one could figure out what we had done the previous year that was in any way different from any other year. Reward us for our years of dedication--we wanted to say--for battling against the insult of our working conditions, for believing in the kids who had stopped believing in themselves and finding a way to engage students who'd always hated school, making them laugh enough to like learning--but don't make those stupid scores our great accomplishment.
Some of us were even a little incensed about the bonuses. We didn't trust them. They reflected an "improvement" that was really a comparison between different students from one year to the next. This seemed almost arbitrary--and could easily, the next year, produce unappealing results that would have little to do with our effectiveness either--a few of us got in an argument with that assistant superintendent, told him that at the very least he ought to be comparing to the scores the same students from one year to the next.

That wish has now been granted by the testing industry as what they call "value added measurement" and it is more honest than previous methods of numerically rating teachers, schools, districts, states, and nations against one another. If the students in my class score lower this year than those same students scored wherever they were last year then it has got to be my fault--unless the student was intoxicated during the test or clinically depressed all year or undernourished (and was not in that impaired condition last year).

Purging ineffective teachers isn't the only objective giving rise to this lust for objective numbers--but it seems right now to be the most urgent one. A good administrator knows who her really bad teachers are. Just about every conscious person in the school knows who they are. And if test data empowers administrators and districts to spare children--those too polite to drive a bad teacher from their midst--then it might be worth the millions we pay the testing industry to produce these scores.

But if districts and politicians want mathematical formulas to determine teacher tenure and pay, hiring and firing--and if they want to be accurate in these objective assessments--they might want to crunch a few additional numbers into their equations: class size (should a teacher whose classes average 35 or 40 have his students' scores compared to those of a teacher whose classes average 25?), room temperature (anything, say, below 50 or above 80 Fahrenheit), variety and condition of instructional materials--plus or minus the percentage of freeway exhaust fumes in the school air or railroad or airplane noise, plus or minus the number of times students have lockdowns because armed gang members invade the campus.

Those first year students of mine understood the challenges I faced with them in that standing-room-only dilapidated bungalow with those mangled desks and rusting shelves that held but a few recycled books. Those student evaluators are men and women now in their thirties and some of them still write to me and say that they are glad I'm still teaching there--and that is the strongest evaluation I think that a teacher can receive, though it isn't going to give me any job security or get me any merit pay.