Evaluating teachers fairly

In almost all schools in this country, teachers are evaluated primarily by principals who observe instruction (“What Knowledge Do Principals Need?” Education Week, Oct. 16).  But I’ve long questioned if this is the best way to do so.

Unless principals are certified in the subject being taught, how can they know if teachers know their subject?  For example, does a principal understand the use of the subjunctive in Spanish when observing a lesson on that topic?  If not, the teacher could be providing incorrect information to students even though the teacher uses correct pedagogy.

I submit that the fairest and most accurate way of evaluating teachers is peer review.  Teachers who are certified in the subject being observed are in a far better position to assess instruction.  Although tradition dies hard in education, and principals are reluctant to yield on this matter, I believe my proposal is worth considering.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

10 Replies to “Evaluating teachers fairly”

  1. A principal doesn’t have to understand the subjunctive in Spanish to know whether a class in the subject is being taught well enough—What is the atmosphere in the class? How do the teacher and students interact? How well do students do on Spanish tests? However, if the principal isn’t proficient in Spanish, then somebody who is should accompany her on the evaluation.


  2. Principals do the observation/evals because principals are the only supervisors/managers in the building. If teachers had first-line supervisors (as pretty much all other professional employees have), then the first-line supervisors would do the observation/evals.

    We should revisit the traditional vision of a teacher teaching a class on his/her own with a single principal down the hall in the central office. If we were setting up an org chart for an organization of professional employees, we would not adopt this traditional vision. Instead, we would have an org chart that provided a first-line supervisor over each group of three-to-six professional employees with a manager over each three-to-six first-line supervisors and a principal over the managers. That’s roughly what you see in govt offices employing large numbers of professional employees as well as in large law firms or large accounting firms.

    The first-line supervisors in schools would not just do the observations/evals. As in the other professions, the first-line supervisors would have a hands-on role reviewing/assisting each of the teachers in the day-to-day work + would fill in for absent teachers + would sometimes team-teach where a second teacher in the room would be particularly effective.

    From the point of view of fairness/objectivity, the first-line supervisor would provide a counter-weight to an irrational or vindictive principal (who, conversely, would provide a counter-weight to an irrational or vindictive first-line supervisor).

    The objection, of course, is cost.


  3. Labor Lawyer: If teaching is indeed a profession, then teachers need to be treated as such. In medicine, which is so specialized, only doctors who are certified in that same specialization evaluate others. Why is teaching different?


    1. Doctors are somewhat an exception to the first-line-supervisor approach. Inexperienced docs (the interns and residents) do have first-line doctor supervisors. But, after completing the internship/residencies/fellowships, docs usually join some kind of group practice where, as a practical matter, their professional work goes unsupervised — there is not even a principal-equivalent who reviews the quality of their professional work. Instead, the docs are subject to feedback from their customers (patients) and to $ review by the senior docs in the group who focus on whether the doc is generating enough income for the partnership. Not sure what large doctor-employing organizations like Kaiser-Permanente do vis-a-vis doc supervision. Other small professional organizations (like a five-man law firm or a five-man accounting firm) operate like the doctor partnership vis-a-vis “supervision” — that is, there is little/no traditional supervision/review/evaluation and instead the organization relies on the customers either liking the quality/price or not liking the quality/price.


  4. Labor Lawyer: What has always bothered me about evaluating teachers by principals who lack background in the subject being taught is the sole focus on pedagogy, as opposed to subject content. Of course, methodology is important, but so is the latter. If teachers teach incorrect information, they shortchange students even though the classroom atmosphere is ideal.


  5. Agree that principals often lack subject-matter expertise (particularly in secondary grades), but in my opinion there are more important problems with the principal-as-observer/evaluator model.

    First, the principal has little/no daily contact (or even weekly contact) with the teacher or the students. It follows that the principal cannot adequately take into account the many classroom factors beyond the teacher’s control that impact the quality of teaching — i.e., screw-up students (or students who usually are not screw-up but are screw-up that week), catching up after a week of testing, students anticipating a holiday, the teacher having a very tough prep for a different class that same day, the observation occurring during a class that is unusually difficult to teach.

    Second, the principal is spread far too thin — so the principal cannot observe any given teacher frequently enough to get a representative sample of the teacher’s performance. Many screw-up teachers can probably get it together long enough to make it through an occasional one-hour observation. Also, the infrequency of the observations means that each observation receives too much weight in the overall eval. We all have good days and bad days. If the principal observes Teacher X only two or three times/year, an uncharacteristically very good or very bad day will have too great an impact on the overall eval.

    Third, the principal is the only evaluator. There is no other supervisor/manager with any input into the eval. If the principal is biased (pro-teacher or anti-teacher) for any reason, there is no check on the principal’s biased eval.

    The first-line-supervisor model addresses each of these problems (as well as most of the evaluator-lacks-subject-matter-expertise problem).


  6. Labor Lawyer: All good points. What about training a group of teachers who are certified in the subject being taught so that they can provide feedback? These master teachers know the subject and have been given additional training in how to observe their peers fairly.


    1. That’s what’s been going on in Montgomery County, MD (a close-in DC suburb) for over 15 years. I’ve probably commented on your postings before re the program — called “PAR”. District HQ selects a group of master teachers who are assigned by district HQ to be the first-line supervisor for very junior teachers and for teachers whom the principal has identified as possibly performing poorly. The assigned supervisor teacher is a subject matter expert in the supervised teacher’s field. The supervisor teacher works with the supervised teacher for a specified period — a few weeks or perhaps longer + helps the supervised teacher improve + models good teaching technique by team-teaching or taking over the class him/herself + writes a report to district HQ recommending discharge, continuation of the supervision or ending the supervision. A committee of supervisor teachers and principals (not including the supervised-teacher’s principal) makes the final discharge/continue-supervision/end-supervision decision. The PAR system was set up jointly by the union and management; it’s been a great success, with hundreds of teachers being discharged or resigning-in-lieu-of-discharge with very few challenges. The union and the rank-and-file teachers strongly support the program. It’s by far the fairest, most reliable, most cost-efficient way to identify problem teachers and improve/remove them. Offers excellent protection for teachers against the irrational or vindictive principal. I think that the supervisor teachers rotate out of the program after a few years, not certain re all the details; have not examined the program recently. Of course, PAR focuses only on the very junior teachers and the possible poor performers — it does nothing to rationalize evals for the average or above-average teachers.


  7. Labor Lawyer: Yes, PAR is the fairest way of evaluating teachers. I don’t know why other school districts don’t adopt it. It’s a model that deserves far greater publicity and support.


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