The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How should Teachers Be Evlauated?

on January 14, 2016

Today’s post is old stuff, but worth re-considering.  In 2012 I was invited by the New York Times to write a letter about evaluating teachers.  How could I turn that invitation down?  Below is the letter I wrote, the responses from readers, and my response to them. (I removed the responders’ names because I do not have their permission.) I think all these opinions are worth looking at four years later because of what has happened since then with so many states using student test scores as part of teachers’ evaluations.  I’d like to hear what readers think about the current situation where they live and what changes should be made.


 Sunday Dialogue: How to Rate Teachers

To the Editor:

Over the past year states have scrambled to rewrite their teacher evaluation procedures to satisfy federal demands. Because the main thrust of the new procedures is to remove ineffective teachers and, perhaps, reward superior ones, their key element is “value added” test scores — measuring how much students’ scores have improved.

But they are also stuffed with multiple observations, often by different observers, long lists of criteria and lengthy written reviews. So freighted, they are not only unfair but also unworkable. There must be a better way.

What schools need are not only simpler and more flexible plans, but also evaluators with enough time and the expertise to do the job. At the elementary level, finding them should be relatively easy: appoint good principals and free them from bus duty and never-ending out-of-school meetings. In high schools, where principals have large numbers of teachers and numerous subject areas under their supervision, the evaluators should be department heads.

As for the evaluation process itself, it needs to be yearlong, with evaluators working alongside teachers and observing many different lessons. Thus, they will see what good teachers do: grading papers at lunchtime, coming in early to tutor a struggling student, staying late to meet with a worried parent, inspiring students to learn more than required.

Primarily, however, states would do well to abandon their obsession with student test scores. As many critics have observed, too many factors beyond a teacher’s control influence those numbers. But an even bigger problem is teaching to the test. With so much weight given to the scores in new evaluations, only a few brave teachers will be able to resist concentrating on tests. As a result, real student learning will decline sharply, along with good teaching.

JOANNE YATVIN
 Portland, Ore., March 13, 2012

The writer is a retired teacher an elementary school principal and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Readers React

I suppose I’m one of the “brave” teachers Ms. Yatvin described, those who aren’t swayed to teach to a standardized test. My goal has always been to challenge my students, no matter their level, and I have been rewarded with the best reading scores in my school for the past three years. So it should probably not come as a surprise that I think testing or some other sort of independent measure of the students’ abilities should be a component of teacher evaluations, an opinion that puts me in the minority of my profession.

However, should test scores be a majority of the evaluation? Absolutely not. There are too many factors outside of the teacher’s skills that contribute to a child’s performance on that one test on that one day. There should be multiple observations, as Ms. Yatvin advocated, but I have another idea: What about the opinion of next year’s teacher? Were the students adequately prepared for his or her class? Did they come in with the base of knowledge that was expected of them?

************

Evaluation is not a spreadsheet. It is a conversation. The point is not to stamp a teacher with a number. You can never bully a teacher into caring for children.

We need to promote collaboration, not competition. Teachers should be constantly given feedback by their colleagues, students and administrators.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” explains the “10,000-hour rule,” claiming that the key to success in any field is a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Likewise, teachers don’t reach their peak until several years on the job.

Parents are putting their greatest treasure in the hands of teachers for 180 days a year. Let’s start treating teachers as nation-builders.

************

Oh pshaw, here we go again, another educator decrying objective student testing in favor of subjective “evaluations” by school leaders and peers. And then these educators lament the imprecise and subjective nature of the evaluations.

The only way to properly measure teacher success is by student progress. Don’t we measure the success of car salesmen by how many cars they sell? Or physicians by the number of correct diagnoses and successful procedures? Why should teachers be any different?

And let’s label the criticism of “teaching to the test” as the smokescreen that it is. After all, how better to measure math skills than by doing math problems and having them reviewed by teachers? And how better to measure reading comprehension than by reading and asking students to explain what they have read?

************

Like so many other observers of the problem, Ms. Yatvin ignores the best source of information about teacher effectiveness — students. In all my years of teaching English and writing I have never seen better judges of teachers.

My experience with student evaluations — most, admittedly, poorly designed — defies the reflexive charge that teachers can buy good reports by being entertaining or easy graders. Young people can see through such ruses and are, as a group, embarrassingly honest.

In my opinion, hacking into the hallway grapevine would be more effective than “value added” testing plus administrator visits.

************

While there is much discussion about whether and how to evaluate teachers, perhaps we need to broaden the discussion to evaluating parents. I’m sure there are many teachers who would like to comment on whether the parents are fulfilling their responsibility to get the kids to school on time, well rested and ready to learn; to teach their children to be respectful of the teachers and other students; to ensure that their children are doing their homework to the best of their ability; to take an active interest in their child’s performance and behavior at school; and accept their share of the responsibility to educate their children and prepare them to be contributing members of society.

We expect so much from our teachers and too often underreward the good ones who put their heart and soul into their jobs against difficult odds. It’s time that the parental role becomes more prominent in our discussions about improving education.

************

I agree with much of Ms. Yatvin’s premise, but would add that the evaluators have to know what they are looking for. I have worked with school systems to help bring a modified corporate approach to teacher performance management and evaluation. This starts with a consistently applied and clearly defined set of standards for a “good” teacher. This will lessen the reliance on test scores, which are acknowledged to be a flawed indicator of a teacher’s expertise. It will also reduce the likelihood that evaluators will judge a teacher by “gut feeling” when they can point to an accepted and vetted set of parameters.

Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.” We need to provide evaluators with a roadmap to evaluate teacher performance accurately. Only then can we undertake the important job of improving teacher performance.

************

It takes a skilled and intelligent administrator to perceive that a variety of teaching styles can be effective. To rate teachers in a cookie-cutter way removes the joy and excitement of creativity from a teacher’s approach.

No student has ever thanked me for helping him or her to achieve good standardized test scores. Instead, students say I made learning fun, or taught them to love learning.

************

Ms. Yatvin’s suggestions for teacher evaluation are excellent. But why are The Times and many others, including federal bureaucrats, suddenly so interested in teacher evaluation?

It is because of the belief that poor teaching is the reason that American schools are failing. The perception that our schools are failing, however, is based on American students’ international test scores. Rarely mentioned is the finding that middle-class American students in well-funded schools score at the top of the world on these tests. Our overall scores are unspectacular because we have one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty among all industrialized countries. The problem is thus not teacher quality. The problem is poverty — poor diet, poor health care and little access to books. Quality teaching has little effect when students are hungry, sick and have nothing to read.

Let’s improve teacher evaluation, but there is no evidence that there is a teaching crisis in the United States.

************

.Politicians and the public would do well to heed the warning that concludes Ms. Yatvin’s insightful letter. The more we rely on test scores to evaluate teachers, the less students will actually learn.

Teachers who are creative feel stultified by test prep. The inordinate time teachers must spend to make sure their students do well on the all-important test takes away from a rich, balanced curriculum.

Students who are poor test-takers but have the potential to succeed in higher education and job training are demoralized by the emphasis on standardized tests. Our brightest students get the message that if you can write in a formulaic manner and ace a test, you have fulfilled an important goal.

I can’t tell you how many times my students have asked, “Is this going to be on the test?”

As a longtime high school English teacher, I lament that the profession I love and have devoted my life to has come to this. If I must be judged on scores, and not on my ability to inspire students to love learning, to love literature and learn about life from it, and to find their writer’s voice, it’s a sad day for all of us.

The Writer Responds

In reading these letters from across the country, I appreciate the differences in the writers’ views on teacher evaluation. Yet I suspect that we are all influenced by our own experiences. Perhaps in some cases the writers’ students come from strong home backgrounds while in others they are handicapped by poverty.

As a principal I worked first at a school in a wealthy community with highly educated families, and later at one in a rural area where many students lived in rundown houses or a trailer park. Because test scores for the first school had always been high and remained so, the teachers and I were reluctant to take credit. But in the second, where we saw strong gains from lower to higher grades, we felt that our teaching made the difference.

At both schools I evaluated teachers by working closely with them throughout the year and seeing their strengths and weaknesses. Neither they nor I panicked when an occasional lesson fell flat. I hesitate to support the preset standards for evaluation that *****advocates. Like ******, the high school student, I believe, “Evaluation is not a spreadsheet. It is a conversation.”

Since retiring, I have been supervising student teachers and doing observational research in a number of schools. Although I still see much excellent teaching and students who are lapping up learning, I also notice deterioration in teacher confidence and student enthusiasm, which I attribute to too much testing and teachers’ feeling that they are no longer in charge of their classrooms.

Joanne Yatvin

 

 

 

 

 

 

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