Teacher evaluation continued

Experiment: Continue to write and try really hard not to cry.

I wrote previously about some of the flaws of teacher evaluation. But it just didn’t seem right to leave the topic without mentioning some of the other research out there.

Teacher evaluations based on observation are advertised a a system to keep teachers accountable and as the way to “ensure” learning for students. I doubt that either of those is actually possible using the sort of rubric and checklist systems that exist. I’ve also heard teacher evaluations touted as a strategy for teacher professional development. The theory is that making teachers aware of what they need to improve, based on a standardized, “objective” evaluation instrument, increases the quality of education as a whole. I doubt that proposition as well and I find the positive message of “improvement” to thinly veil other uses that are possible with this sort of data. Although teacher evaluation instruments may have some potential positive effects, “even the most well intentioned change devices which try to respect teachers’ discretionary judgments, promote their professional growth and support their efforts to build professional community are often self-defeating because they are squeezed into mechanistic models or suffocated through stifling supervision” (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 3). My view is that teacher evaluation based on observation is the opposite of “the ends justify the means”. It is “the ends nullify the means”. A good analogy would be running a mile to eat fast food for lunch each day. It’s probably better just staying home and eating something healthy. 

The “stifling supervision” that Hargreaves (1994) discusses seems to go along with an entire culture of measurability of students and teachers. This is particularly evident in schools that are competing for students and for business.  Keddie, Mills, and Pendergast (2011) use the term “disciplining” to describe school policies like teacher evaluation that coerce teachers into certain ways of thinking about education. “The purpose of this disciplining of teachers and students is to fit them within the school’s entrepreneurial identity. Such disciplining, embedded in the performative/ accountability cultures at [the case study school], is based on the expectation that teachers will ascribe to this identity and contribute to the school’s competitiveness and productivity. This involves the administration consistently evaluating such contribution in relation to measurable outputs—for example, ensuring teachers teach in particular ways to reach particular targets” (Keddie, Mills & Pendergast, 2011, p. 88). When schooling is approached with a business mindset, the automatic expectation is “measurable targets” and evaluation systems seem to be the only way to measure teachers who really don’t “produce” anything, but “reproduce” knowledge. The conflict arises because teachers don’t make something that can be obviously quantified. There is not a clear relationship between teacher pay and productivity like production or sales based businesses. What teachers make is much more nebulous. 

 The problem may be that what teachers “make” is something outside of the realm of countable. Unfortunately, spending energy on what is countable in education seems to undermine what is seen to be the real work of teaching. “The pressing demands of accountability and intensification can fill up the scheduled time demands of teaching to such an extent that little time is left for the informal, interstitial moments to  show care and concern: to fulfill the very purpose that many teachers feel to be at the heart of their work”  (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 149). It seems that increasing external accountability may even have the effect of decreasing the excellence of the work that is done. Superior teaching may be more about the unmeasurable and, often, invisible work that is done. How do we measure the invisible? When visible proof is the only evidence that counts, what happens to teachers?

Woods and Jeffrey (2002) recorded how teachers felt when their quality as a teacher was judged not on personal factors (or “uncountable” attributes), but on the evidence that was available. The teachers felt that the hidden, derogatory message behind evaluation systems was that anyone can teach if they just follow some simple steps. The teachers reported feeling an attack on their personal philosophy of education and that evaluation systems seemed to target teachers’ own feelings of inadequacy. Inadequacy was found to be a common feeing of teachers (even excellent teachers!) who constantly feel like there is more progress to be made and more students to reach because the job is never done! This led to feelings of shame across the spectrum of teachers. Some felt shame for not being able to live up to expectations and some for “playing the game” instead of doing what they professionally judged to be best. Evaluation systems based on observation forced teachers to be vulnerable, being “undressed” and “laid naked” – which they equated to “professional rape”. The teachers felt held accountable for all actions in the classroom in a way that made the teachers the victims (Woods & Jeffrey, 2002, pp.13-15). Is “professional rape” really worth the small increases in accountability or teacher performance that may come along with and evaluation system? 

If there is a benefit to evaluation systems, it may be completely counteracted by the amount of “identity work” that teachers have to do in order to resolve their feelings. Teachers are “laid bare”, told to pick themselves apart, and then judged on the visible elements of a classroom that may have too many factors out of their control. The reaction is to take on a “new assigned social identity . . . [that is] situational, designed to met the instrumental purposes of audit accountability” (Woods & Jeffrey, 2002, p. 28). Education is the loser because teachers end up spending immense mental  and emotional energy to reconstruct their self-concept and they end up distancing themselves from their ideal, teacher selves (Woods & Jeffrey, 2002). This new self “is produced for and by evaluation and comparison, and the danger is that we become transparent but empty, unrecognisable to ourselves in a life enabled by and lived against measurement, our days are numbered – literally” (Ball, 2015, p. 826). Woods and Jeffrey (2002) found that teachers tended to respond by finding their “real” selves outside of school or in completely different positions. Unable to reconcile their own feelings of purpose with the assigned purpose based on evaluation, there was no choice but to find another way. With great sadness, I absolutely understand. 

Taylor Mali’s TED talk, “What Teachers Make” is linked within this post but also check out the Zen Pencils Version.

Ball, S. J. (2015). Accounting for a sociological life: influences and experiences on the road from welfarism to neoliberalism. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(6), 817-831. doi:10.1080/01425692.2015.1050087

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing Teacher, Changing Times. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Keddie, A., Mills, M., & Pendergast, D. (2011). Fabricating an identity in neo‐liberal times: performing schooling as ‘number one’. Oxford Review of Education, 37(1), 75-92. doi:10.1080/03054985.2010.538528

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

 Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” is linked within this post, but also check out the Zen Pencils Version


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