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On Grading Teachers

Yesterday I promised more on the topic of teachers’ evaluation.

Education comes through teachers, and it makes sense to keep the good ones around. I’ve heard it said that we cannot fix education by firing people, but laying off underperformers would provide a definite, if marginal, improvement. So, to speak to the scope of teacher evaluations: it is not the sum-total of education reform, by any means, but it is real and worth discussing. What I’ve learned from reading books by teachers, and talking to teachers, is this:

  • Evaluating teachers can be similar to other job evaluations. This is controversial, so I’ll get into specifics. Those who disagree are correct in stating that it is not similar to manufacturing jobs; teaching cannot be measured as widgets. Most American jobs are not manufacturing jobs, however, and particular insights can be gained by exploring what teaching actually is. Teachers produce both learning and learning capacities in their students, this can be likened to the daily research and presentations given in business board rooms around the country, and also re-model construction: they take what is already there, rip some of it out, add new better-looking and more functional fixtures, and improve the situation. Every remodel project is different, and some require remedial, pull-out-the-moldy-wall-and-replumb-before-we-can-get-started work.This “bad product” argument is one of the main arguments against evaluating teachers, no one wants to be responsible for turning a future felon into a future real estate agent, when they’ll be graded on the same scale as the teacher of sons and daughters of real estate agents; the work-load and the mental toll is just not the same. Worse, some teachers are less temperamentally suited to this kind of rehabilitation than others, so it can hardly be fair, yes?Well, yes, it can be fair. A difficult or complicated thing is not an impossible thing, and we can take account of the level of readiness in students t each level. Just as a remodel job is bid at a certain price if it is straightforward, and higher if it requires more work, teaching can take into consideration the level of students entering the classroom each year.  The next points will explore this further.
  • I propose half-yearly independent progress measurements for students. These should be district-wide, basic
    (exploring fundamental skill sets, not comprehensive knowledge), and recorded, taking into consideration the realities of the schools they grade and administered as one part of a progress measure. Students would benefit from reinforcement of progress, and a whole slew of data can be used by superintendents to make more proper management decisions. Which brings us to the next point:
  • Teachers can evaluate each other better than “suits” in D.C. or Olympia can. It is not unreasonable to have teachers sit in while their colleague teaches a classroom, except that it violates one tradition: that of the pedagogical fiefdom. One of the less-stated but more important ‘perks’ to teaching is control, the power of ruling a classroom. Readers who dispute this should mention evaluations to teacher friends and watch a reaction. What I don’t recommend is teachers in the same district undercutting each other for placement; what I do suggest is teachers giving advise and sharing on the topic of teaching. This happens far too seldom in education today, as people separate themselves from each other, to be “professional.” But as Parker J. Palmer stated in his book, The courage to teach: “In every story I have heard, good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work.”
  • Connecting the human factor to policy is required for good policy. This is my mantra in thinking about government policies. Think about it: Government can’t do love, it does procedure. But Teaching is not procedure, it is a human activity, shared by the educator and pupil alike, as they explore truth together. If that sounds wishy-washy, let me re-state it: teaching is a fundamentally human behavior, and the teacher must engage his or her students as humans before real learning can happen with any consistency. As Nobel Prize winner, Professor Edleman said, “Each individual brain is more like a unique and unimaginably dense rain forest, teeming with growth and decay. It is less like a programmed machine than an ecological habitat that mimics the evolution of life itself.”

Policy can only facilitate the occurence of learning, not dictate it. Teachers should be evaluated based on performance, undoubtedly, but performance should be measured in human ways. Regular basic standards combined with human evaluation is the way forward.

For further reading and a great collection of inspirational quotes on this topic, try Leading Learning.

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About humourologist

A man who is interested in almost everything, I am a writer, blogger, and political junkie since long before graduating from Pacific Lutheran University. Currently an Action For Washington fellow and content editor, I was a maintenance guy (including groundskeeping) for 3.5 years. I enjoy applying the inarguable principles of mundane life to big ideas, and I get beat up a lot for doing this.

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