Why Teacher Evaluation is the Wrong Priority

By Jon Saphier -- September 23, 2014

Three years from now, in 2017, the current focus on teacher evaluation will have died away. Not that it wasn’t needed; it’s true that teacher evaluation has been flawed for many decades. However, the fundamental education challenge we face is not evaluating teaching, it is improving teaching. The problem is that teacher evaluation is only one of many levers of influence required to improve teaching, and it’s not the most powerful one at that. This isn’t to say that pressing for improving teacher evaluation has not been without some real benefit. It caused the development of complex rubrics that spell out the range and complexity of successful teaching. This is the beginning of forming a common image for what good teaching looks and sounds like. This is the good news.

The bad news is that 1) these rubrics have made superficial evaluation more efficient by inducing their use as checklists in observations and 2) evaluators are woefully underprepared to observe and gather evidence on what is most important for successful teaching. Even when evaluators are skilled in translating these rubrics into valid evaluations of teachers, active teacher evaluation touches teachers too infrequently in their professional lives to have a strong influence on their practice.

What’s the bottom line? The current emphasis on teacher evaluation has resulted in rubrics and abstract language used by under skilled evaluators too infrequently to make a difference. Add to that the giant cultural shift needed to accept “needs improvement” as a valid and non-blameful comment on certain aspects of our teaching. Then there is the fact the huge majority of teachers still receive ratings of proficient or above. Moreover, there are the political dynamics and interpersonal stress of confronting unsatisfactory teaching honestly and credibly after many years of good evaluations have piled up in the personnel files. It’s not a very strong case for making teacher evaluation a strong force for the improvement of student’s experience.

Truly unsatisfactory teaching should not, of course, be ignored. If the truly unskilled and under-invested in our teacher workforce are dismissed, that would be a good thing for the children who would have otherwise had them as teachers. Overall, this is a small percentage of teachers, and eliminating their access to children will provide a real boost in the achievement of  students in this country. What will make a much bigger difference and close the achievement gap is systematic attention to all the levers of influence for high expertise teaching. These levers are:

  • Quality teacher preparation
  • Skilled recruitment and hiring
  • Comprehensive induction programs
  • Teacher evaluation
  • Access to high quality professional development throughout ones career
  • Powerful partnerships between principals and instruction coaches
  • Development of leaders who can create strong adult professional cultures in their schools.

Let’s get our priorities right: not just evaluation, but improvement, continuous learning, continuous growth, and high expertise teaching for all our children.