Teacher evaluations Part 1 – The first date syndrome

There has been a marked increase in the attention given to teacher evaluations in recent years. Most of that attention surrounds the results of those evaluations; how it is teachers are scored or rated. But what is missing from most of those reports is the actual process of how a teacher is evaluated. How is that rating determined? Or even more fundamental: How is a teacher evaluated?

To those outside education it would seem reasonable that an evaluation would go something like this: the principal and teacher meet to review what the teacher has done over the past school year, maybe include goals/objectives previously identified. They discuss what worked and what didn’t. The principal might review what he/she found during a few classroom visits. The teacher would get some kind of overall score/grade and the principal would determine if the teacher should be rehired for the next year.

That’s not even close.

Remember that first date? The one when you were really out to impress that special someone – you know, hide the real you? While concurrently having unrealistic expectations of the other person? Teacher evaluations are a lot like that.

One dirty little secret of public education is that teachers aren’t really evaluated, not in a sense that other professionals are. Teachers are observed, mostly on their terms, and it’s their behavior that is judged.

Here’s how they generally work. For a tenured teacher, the principal comes into the classroom for what is termed a “formal observation,” which is typically a 30 – 40 minute visit. A probationary teacher usually gets two such visits. And those are times determined by the teacher. (In my experience it wasn’t unusual for the principal to leave early, attending to some emergency, so the observation timed was actually shorter.) Naturally, the teacher is going to pick a subject or a class that will make him or her look the best. The classroom visits are followed by a meeting to discuss what the principal observed and put in writing. Of course, most of what the principal recorded is positive, because the teacher cherry-picked the setting. The process is concluded when the principal rates the teacher using a rubric based matrix (this is the one used in Topeka Public Schools) – a tool that attempts to turn the subjective into the objective. This is a key component because the matrix/rubric is used to place the teacher in a performance category.

And there’s one more very important point that I’m sure most Kansans don’t realize. Our state is one of 22 states that does NOT require tenured teachers get evaluated annually.  After only four years in the classroom, Kansas teachers are evaluated every three years. Indeed, that’s two full years with no formal appraisal. In what other profession do you get two years off for good behavior?

You may be wondering how our public school educators get such a sweetheart deal. Two words: collective bargaining. As I will detail in Part 2, the unions have played and continue to play a key role in the evaluation process and the inflated ratings teachers are getting around the country.

Ratings that are as inflated as your expectations of that first date.