Teacher Evaluation

Experiment: Write and don’t cry

I’ll be totally honest; One of the reasons I left teaching was teacher evaluation based on observation. Or, at least, the personal effects of systems like teacher evaluation.

Woods and Jeffrey (2002) conducted a significant study of the ways that teachers engaged in “identity work” in response to observation based evaluation systems. Some teachers would “show off” for evaluations, some “played the game” and distanced themselves from the process, and some felt victimized. I was in that last group, unable to reconcile my own convictions with what was expected of me. So, here is my “identity work,” a bit of emotional energy spent to reconstitute my ideal self. Fortunately, because I left teaching, I get to do my work in my own way, in my own time, and on my own terms. So, let’s talk teacher evaluation! 

Teacher evaluation is an integral part of teacher accountability at a time when accountability is credited with magical powers of improvement in education systems. No Child Left Behind was purely a system of accountability sold to the American people as the path for improving schools, even though it had no mechanism for developing education. “Indeed, in the present rather attenuated policy discourse, the main avenue for educational improvement is seen as more of the same: more intense competition, more professionalised management, tighter accountability of measured outputs, greater efficiency pressures, and so on” (Marginson, 1999, p. 236-237). Danielson’s Framework for Teaching is probably the most infamous but Pearson markets their own and creates customized versions for many states and agencies. John Hattie discusses the importance of his own work creating an evaluation instrument, but I haven’t seen it yet. The rarely contested view is that evaluation by observation is equivalent to accountability, that it is useful or productive, and that it will improve education. I’m just not convinced. 

Cutting up teaching into observable, “universal,” and tangible criteria and then judging the teacher based on those fragments removes humanity from the collective experience of education. “Performance categories [of an evaluation instrument] take the basic human abilities to take the perspective of the other, to empathize, to treat others with dignity and respect, and break them down into minute subcategories, thereby transforming them into nonhuman categories . . . Interpersonal relations in the workplace are codified and standardized, divided and subdivided, broken down and controlled. Human interaction is reduced to the implementation of standardized procedures; real people and real relationships are lost” (Ferguson, 1984, pp. 75-76). Teaching is not simply following a set of prescribed actions. To make a music analogy, it is more like a rehearsal. In rehearsal, not every concept exists every time, sometimes things go wrong, musicians react to difficulties with strategies of varying success, and all of it is a part of the process. Eventually, the goal is to be able to perform at a high level. But in that performance will be intangible elements and perhaps even some mistakes. Judging a rehearsal on the number of correct notes or the amount of time spent making sound misses the point and probably does not predict how beautiful the final performance will be. The whole premise of schooling is that teachers work with students with a long-term purpose, not tunnel vision for a single day. Even if the teacher does their best, the students’ “performances” in the future may still have mistakes and I think that’s very human.

So, if teacher evaluations deny the humanity of teachers and are unlikely to be a real measure of education, why are they still used? Ferguson (1984) has several theories: evaluation “is simply a strategy to derail employee hostility toward the organization, to allow the organization to exercise power more effectively over personnel by manipulating their emotional needs at vulnerable times, and to discourage any effort at collective action” (p. 75). Teachers are individualized and judged on their single contribution even though they are embedded within a school community. Ferguson believes that these kind of instruments are created to maintain hierarchies and systems of power. As a way to exercise power over subordinates, difficult to decipher performance criteria are created so that workers “being evaluated in these terms would be hard-pressed to distinguish one category from another or to understand what concrete form of behaviour is meant by each. Since these techniques could so easily become ‘covers’ for other, hidden, criteria of evaluation, the vulnerability of the employees and their need to cultivate the good will of superiors in increased. So-called ‘objective’ standards for evaluation in fact invite the most ‘subjective’ abuse” (Ferguson, 1984, p. 74). Evaluation instruments create a system where teachers are dependent on the people who evaluate their worth. The system of evaluation perpetuates an imbalance of power. Subordinates submit to evaluation, are judged by their superiors, and then become reliant on their superiors to improve according to the evaluation instrument. This happens not only at the school level, but at the level of school evaluation agencies as well (Oftsed, KHDA, etc.). The system becomes self-justifying, defining best practice based on a measurement tool rather than educational values or the discourse of professionals.

Teacher evaluation instruments create a new set of values based on what is observable and measurable. This is having a profound effect on schools. Although administrators will often declare that teachers should just teach as they normally would, “normal” is redefined by the evaluation instrument. “The activities of the new technical intelligentsia, of management, drive performativity into the day-to-day practices of teachers and into the social relations between teachers. They make management, ubiquitous, invisible, inescapable – part of and embedded in everything we do. Increasingly, we choose and judge our actions and they are judged by others on the basis of their contribution to organizational performance, rendered in terms of measurable outputs. Beliefs are no longer important — it is output that counts. Beliefs are part of an older, increasingly displaced discourse” (Ball, 2003, p. 223). More discussion about beliefs, teacher identity, and the negative impacts of teacher evaluation will have to wait for the next post!

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228. doi:10.1080/0268093022000043065

Ferguson, K. E. (1984). The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy: Temple University Press.

Marginson, S. (1999). Introduction by Guest Editor: Education and the Trend to Markets. Australian Journal of Education, 43(3), 229-240. doi:10.1177/000494419904300302

Woods, P., & Jeffrey, B. (2002). The Reconstruction of Primary Teachers’ Identities. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 23(1), 89-106. doi:10.1080/01425690120102872

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