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Teacher Evaluation is Fatally Flawed

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Are you ready for an interesting admission:  I don't think I'm a very effective classroom teacher. 

Crazy, huh? 

How could a guy who has earned broad recognition for innovative thinking and instruction, been recognized as an accomplished teacher by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards twice, and placed in the top eight of the state Teacher of the Year competition doubt his own abilities?

The answer's actually pretty simple:  I know more about my own strengths and weaknesses than any of the outsiders who have chosen to celebrate my practice.

I know that I struggle to identify students who need extra practice with the individual skills that we're studying in our classroom, mostly because I'm horrible at collecting, manipulating and analyzing data. 

I know that I struggle to provide meaningful enrichment opportunities to top-performers, mostly because I'm too busy answering emails, grading papers and going to meetings to design differentiated learning experiences. 

I know that -- despite the best of intentions -- I struggle to regularly engage my students in the kinds of self assessment practices that result in better learning. 

What's really crazy is that despite all of these weaknesses, I've never earned anything other than top ratings on teacher evaluations over the course of the past 17 years. In fact, I've never even had an administrator suggest an area for improvement on an evaluation in my career.

None.  Zero.  Zip. 

According to the dozens of people who've been in charge of assessing my teaching, I'm satisfactory on a bad day and darn near perfect on a good one.  

That's interesting, isn't it? 

Wouldn't you think that someone somewhere would have noted some of the same weaknesses in my practice that I see in myself?  Shouldn't a guy who is so sure that he needs improvement see at least one or two "needs improvement" ratings on his evaluations somewhere in a 17-year career?

The sad reality -- detailed thoroughly in this New Teacher Project study of the teacher evaluation practices in 12 districts across four states -- is that few, if any, teachers see "needs improvement" ratings on their evaluations. 

According to the study:

  • 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory in districts that use simple "satisfactory or unsatisfactory" rating systems.
  • In districts with more sophisticated rating systems, 94 percent of teachers earn ratings in the top two categories, and less than one percent receive unsatisfactory ratings.

While the fact that teacher evaluations are completely failing to identify any teachers who could polish their practices is disturbing enough, the news in the New Teacher Project study only gets worse. 

Consider that:

  • 73 percent of teachers report that their most recent evaluation didn't indentify any areas for improvement.
  • Only 45 percent of teachers who had areas for improvement noted in their evaluations reported receiving useful support.

Think about what all of this means:  We claim to care about seeing students succeed and we know that teachers are the most important school-based factor in ensuring student success, yet we report that 99 percent of our teachers are on the money.

We claim to care about seeing students succeed and we know that teachers are the most important school-based factor in ensuring student success, yet only one of four teachers -- regardless of ability -- gets any suggestions for improving their practice in their evaluations.

We claim to care about seeing students succeed and we know that teachers are the most important school-based factor in ensuring student success, yet less than half of the teachers with identified areas for improvement are given meaningful support.

If we really cared about seeing students succeed, wouldn't we shun evaluation systems that rely on single administrators -- already overwhelmed by the challenges of leading complex human organizations -- to make judgments on educators that they may only see teach once or twice a year?

Wouldn't we shun evaluation systems that provide no additional time for administrators and teachers to meet together to reflect on instructional strengths and weaknesses?

Wouldn't we shun evaluation systems that aren't backed up by the kinds of resources necessary for providing support -- professional development, mentoring, ongoing classroom coaching -- to struggling teachers. 

There's no doubt about it:  Our systems and structures for evaluating teachers are fatally flawed.

And while there is nothing more repulsive to me than the simplistic evaluation policies based on student test scores being put forth as the solution to America's education challenge -- and while I have no faith that Oprah, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee are the right voices or have the right experiences to drive meaningful change -- I'm also intimately aware of the need for changing teacher evaluation in our country.

After all, I've spent the better part of the past decade asking  for help that no one else seems to believe that I need.