Look to other ‘knowledge industries’ to get teacher evaluation right

America’s teaching profession is in need of an overhaul of its teacher evaluation system.  Researchers of many decades ago—including Arthur Wise and Linda Darling-Hammond back in 1984—pointed out such problems as the lack of “uniformity and consistency” as well as “resolve and competency” of administrators in assessing teacher performance.*

Thirty years later, school reformers, some with little historical perspective, have sought to overhaul teacher evaluation in large measure to get tough on teachers. Observers, like Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week, writing several months ago, suggest that “teachers’ ratings are still high despite the new measures.” Fueled by federal incentives to implement new performance evaluation systems, much like the ones in the private sector with a focus on results, more than one-half of the states are assessing teachers based on more rigorous observation tools and highly formulaic statistical analyses of student test scores. But, as New York Times writer Phyllis Korkki let us know this past weekend, the private sector is thinking very differently about evaluation. In knowledge industries (and perhaps reformers might begin to think of teaching in the same light), like Adobe, Ms. Korkki points out that the high-tech company has “abolished” its annual performance reviews—and formal tools. Instead Adobe now “just asks people to have conversations.”

Reform du jour focuses primarily on rating teachers, based on a bell-curve derived from the “value” they “add” to student learning over time. But now thoughtful managers in the private sector like those at Microsoft, according to Korkki, are jettisoning “forced rankings” of employees in order to avoid “internal dysfunctional competition.”  At Yahoo, performance evaluations focus on letting employees “understand how they are performing relative to expectations…(with) no hard and fast rules” around categorizing them.

No doubt our public education system is in dire need of including multiple measures of performance in new ways to assess teachers—but the rigid approach being employed now runs counter to the best thinking and action in the private sector. As Robert Reischauer and Michael McPherson remind us:

Resistance to measurement can often reflect a reluctance to face up to the need for sometimes unpleasant but vitally important change. Yet measuring outcomes badly or incompletely brings risks and pitfalls of its own. Getting measurement wrong, whether because it is too narrow or too loosely connected to the outcome you really care about, can lead to disappointment or worse.

Thirty years ago Wise and Darling-Hammond recommended that “one single system” of performance evaluation may not fit the complex demands of teaching and learning and little progress will be made in assessing results without the leadership of expert teachers. Both reformers and education writers might want to catch up on the history of teacher evaluation and the scholarship of years past. They may also want to take a look at developments of performance evaluation in the private sector.

* Wise, A, Darling-Hammond, L, McLaughlin, M., and Bernstein, H. (1984). Teacher Evaluation: A Study of Effective Practices. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

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