Here We Go Again!

What's this fascination we've got with teachers? Why do we concentrate on them so much, when we talk about education, and on rating them, and so little on learning?

There's an article in today's The New York Times about claims that education will actually get better if we have more evaluation of teachers. That, by itself, is as silly as the now-discredited claim behind No Child Life Behind that more standardized testing will improve schools.

But that's where we're heading:

There are advantages for teacher evaluations, too, Dr. [Thomas J.] Kane said.

With videos, for instance, several professionals, rather than just one principal, could rate the same classroom performance, making ratings less subjective, he said.

“It potentially creates a cottage industry for retired principals, or even expert teachers, to moonlight on weekends scoring classroom observations,” he said.

An Internet-based approach to teacher evaluation could also alleviate some pressures on school districts. New laws in many states, after all, are requiring more frequent observations of teachers.

A new evaluation system in Washington, D.C., for example, requires five observations each year, compared with the previous systems that required one or two at most, and in many cases none at all. Starting next fall, a Tennessee law will require at least four observations a year, rather than one every five years.

I once visited a college in Virginia that had grown from a boarding school whose main building had been built around the principal's office, so that he or she could peek into each classroom without leaving the desk. It sounds like we're now moving back to the same idea.

Instead of just being forced to teach to the test, teachers will now have to also teach to the camera.

And this 'cottage industry'? It will require new rubrics, new methods of quantification. More numbers, more gobbledegook. What it won't require (or lead to) is better learning.

When I think of those sitting, watching the videos and scoring (paid piece-rate, I am sure), I remember the VP at a company I worked for in the 1970s. The brother of the founder of the firm, he would stand behind my desk and watch me working over spreadsheets with two calculators and piles of data. He would nod, grunt “uh-huh,” pat me on the shoulder, and say, “good job.” He hadn't a clue what I was doing.

These evaluators will have no better idea of the learning going on in the classrooms than that VP did about the orders, shipments and returns I was charting. They can't, for the camera will be on the teacher, not on the learners—and a great deal of what any teacher does is in direct response to what that teacher sees amongst the students.

When I evaluate a colleague, I spend as much time watching the faces of the students in the class as I do watching the teacher. And I concentrate on the interaction, on whether or not the students appear to be gaining from the instruction. Only then do I turn to other factors. Unless there are cameras on each student (not even then, actually), the dynamics of the classroom cannot be captured or evaluated via video.

Evaluation of teachers, like standardized testing, is a red-herring distracting us from reform that can lead to better learning. For that, we have to address questions of poverty first of all. Next, we ought to break down our industrial model of the school (and of progress through it), replacing it with a more flexible framework allowing for variety and change. Then we should work on teacher training, making sure we bring to the classroom only teachers who understand that education can only work when the student is motivated to learn and who know how to find any glimmer of it and make that motivation grow.

More evaluations will help us towards that about as little as more standardized testing has.

No votes yet


Evaluating teachers through video is like evaluating drivers through video mounted inside the car and focused on them. We might see what the individual is doing, but we don't see the road, the other cars, or that deer that looked like it was about to dart into the road.