03/26/2013 10:22 am ET Updated May 26, 2013

Evaluating Teachers: Transforming a Game Into a Game-changer


Last week, ministers of education and union leaders from the best performing and most rapidly education systems met in Amsterdam to discuss how to evaluate teachers effectively. Everywhere this is a hot topic but these summits provide an opportunity to advance the dialogue between government and unions on professional issues without getting side-tracked by national industrial disputes.

Everyone agreed that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, and that the quality of teachers cannot exceed the quality of the work organization in schools and the ways in which teachers are supported. That's why the appraisal of teachers needs to look beyond teachers as individuals and take a systemic approach -- starting from what's happening in classrooms, taking into account the learning environment and context of schools, and extending the perspective to the policies and practices in the education system as a whole.

Appraising individuals will always be a contentious exercise: As one of the speakers put it, in the end we all want maximum autonomy for ourselves and maximum predictability for everyone else; that is, we want to work in ways we believe are best, and we want others to work in ways we believe are best too. However, interestingly there was only one lonely voice in the summit hall calling for teachers to be left in peace to get on with their work, without being subject to any evaluation or accountability. In contrast, most participants, including ministers, union leaders and teachers, agreed that teachers need and want feedback to improve their practice, and that appraisal systems are effective mechanisms to provide such feedback.

Given, it was surprising to learn how many teachers are left alone in classrooms, with no appraisal and little feedback. According to the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), one in five teachers never received feedback from any internal or external source. Teachers may not get feedback because appraisal systems are costly to design and maintain, in money and time, but more often, because there is no consensus on the purpose of appraisal, no consensus on the processes and criteria for measuring teacher performance, and no consensus on the governance of appraisal. Those were the questions ministers and union leaders struggled with.

As one union leader put it, many approaches toward teacher appraisal reflect a long-gone past. When teaching was mainly about explaining prefabricated content, governments used to tell their teachers exactly what to do and exactly how they wanted it done, using prescriptive methods of administrative control, evaluation and accountability. In contrast, today's school systems require teachers to be high-level knowledge workers capable of engaging students from diverse backgrounds and helping them to develop complex ways of thinking and working that computers cannot imitate. They need to attract the greatest talent into teaching, develop that talent effectively, and get the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms. But that can't happen if schools are organized like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets. Today's school systems need to offer a very different work organisation, with the status, professional autonomy, and the high-quality education that go with professional work, with differentiated career paths for teachers and with effective systems of teacher appraisal geared towards professional development. As one minister put it, this is about advancing from a rule-based work organisation towards a liberated profession.

Ministers and union leaders discussed how education systems can get the balance right between central guidance and local flexibility, holding schools accountable for implementing effective teacher appraisals without stifling the creativity and innovation of local actors. There was agreement that governments need to be clear -- and honest -- about what they are trying to achieve with teacher appraisal. Is the purpose professional improvement? Then the appraisal has to provide meaningful feedback. Improvement is mostly a matter of skill and will, and we tend to underestimate the skills involved in teaching. Is the purpose accountability? Then there needs to be clarity about the consequences for a teacher's career and, as one union leader stressed, whatever measures are chosen should not be so highly consequential to deter teachers from venturing into new territory and innovating within the profession.

Much of the discussion focused on how to evaluate teachers. Everyone knows there is plenty of excellent teaching, but few can describe how exactly that looks like and, surely, those who cannot define good teaching are unlikely to develop good teachers. There was agreement that standards and a shared understanding of high-quality teaching are the essential foundation of appraisal systems. There was also agreement that quality teaching should aspire to comprise the kind of teaching that contributes to producing the full range of skills and outcomes that are valued by school systems and nations, not just some of them.

In discussions about the substance of standards for the profession, participants always mentioned planning and preparation, including knowledge of content and pedagogy, knowledge of students, coherent teaching plans, and knowing how to assess student learning. Instruction was also central, comprising teachers' ability to communicate effectively, use appropriate discussion techniques, engage students in learning, provide feedback, and demonstrate responsiveness. Creating a climate of respect and rapport, establishing a culture of learning, and managing student behaviour were also frequently mentioned.

However, it was also clear that many countries seek to go beyond what is happening in classrooms. They embrace a wider mission of teachers that includes the ability to work in teams, managing and sharing leadership responsibilities, providing advice to parents, and building community partnerships in the standards of appraisal systems.

Most participants also agreed that for teaching standards to be adopted by the profession, teachers must have a lead role in developing them, and the profession needs to own its professional standards as other professions do. As one speaker said, if we develop policies that are antithetical to teachers' own perceptions of what makes effective teaching, education systems are unlikely to deliver improvements in learning outcomes. Just as important, there was agreement that the appraisal of teaching quality needs to be multidimensional to reflect the many facets of teaching; and as such, multiple sources of evidence and multiple stakeholders must be involved.

The question of what instruments should be used to evaluate teaching sparked one of the most lively debates at the summit. Read about it in my next blog, "Effective instruments for teacher evaluation -- what education ministers and union leaders think."