What is the Point of Teacher Evaluation? Seriously, What is the Purpose?

Recently, Rick Hess has written about the pointlessness of new teacher evaluation systems, claiming – in his headline – that they "Don't Make a Difference." But I think Rick might be missing the point. (He is basing this on the research of Matt Kraft and Allison Gilmour, which I have downloaded but not yet read, yet. They might be missing the point, too, but I can't be sure, yet.) 

The point. What is the point or the purpose of teacher evaluation? Well, I can think of a few possibilities, but the bottom line of each and everyone one of them would have to be improving outcomes for children. How might teacher evaluation systems do that?

  1. Identify struggling teachers for removal.
  2. Identify struggling teachers for targeted intervention to improve their effectiveness.
  3. Intimidate struggling teachers to remove themselves. 
  4. Provide a structure or framework for struggling teachers and those who support them to think about teaching, so that they can better improve their effectiveness.
  5. Provide a structure or framework for all teachers and those who support them to think about teaching, so that they can better improve their effectiveness.

That's basic mechanisms by which a formal teacher evaluation system may improve aggregate teacher effectiveness, and thereby improve outcomes for children.

But I think there are more than that because mechanisms #1 and #2 are ambiguous in who must know the identity of the struggling teachers. If it is just the teachers themselves, then mechanisms #1 and #2 are the equivalent of #3 and #4, but there remain multiple possibilities. Perhaps struggling teachers should be identified to their local supervisors? Perhaps they should be identified to their local peers? Perhaps they should be identified to their district offices? Or to the public, or the the state of feds?

Each of those implies a somewhat different mechanism. Peers might support a struggling teacher in other ways than a supervisor, and systems by which peers decide on the removal of ineffective teachers – usually called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) – do exist in some places. Certainly, targeted assistance and termination procedures are quite different if they bare based on local supervisors rather than the district office – and likely different again if based on state officials or feds.

So, it's pretty complicated.

But here's where I think Rick (and likely Mark and Allison) is making his big mistake: many of these mechanisms do not require accurate reporting of teacher effectiveness. Many of these mechanisms are not undermined by fudging the public or official recording to the advantage of the struggling teacher.

So long as a teacher, his/her supervisor and/or his/her peers know that this teacher is struggling, the mechanisms based on improving his/her effectiveness can still work.

So long as a teacher knows that s/he is struggling, s/he can still leave. So long as a supervisor knows that a teacher is struggling, s/he can still pressure the teacher to leave. So long as a supervisor knows that an untenured teacher is struggling, s/he can fire that teacher without citing ineffectiveness as a the reason. 

Let me say this again: Teacher evaluation programs do not have to accurately record which teachers are struggling/ineffective to improve aggregate teacher performance and/or outcomes for children. They do not.

But what does require accurate recording of teacher ineffectiveness?

  1. State of federal intervention in handling struggling teachers.
  2. Humiliation of struggling teachers by public shaming.

Now, Rick doesn't believe that the feds can effectively intervene in this kind of delicate problem, and his logic there applies to most states, as well. So, where does that leave us? Either, the one of the goals of teacher evaluation systems is the humiliation of teachers (individually or collectively), or Rick is simply wrong that crazy high reporting of effective teachers (95%+) are a sign that the systems are not working.

I think that Rick is simply wrong. 


This actually takes us to a common problem with our education policy. For a variety of reasons – some better than others – we want unprecedented amount of transparency in our efforts to improve schools. I don't know of any other field that that calls for the public to know how individual workers are evaluated -- either individually or in the aggregate. Similarly, nor is franchise or branch office performance made public. 

Sure, we all know how a sports team did each game, but no one expects the internal ratings of each members' performance to reported to the public. But politicians to not release the performance evaluations of their staffs, neither individually nor in the aggregate. Researchers do not publicly release their evaluations of their students or their teams, neither individually nor in the aggregate. Think tanks do not release evaluations of their members, contributors or staffs. 

So, why is it that we need to know how many teachers were deemed effective? It is not because without releasing these numbers publicly that we cannot improve outcomes for students. I am not happy with the only reason I can think of.