Op-Ed: Teacher Evaluation — What is the Primary Goal?

Michael Hoban, Ph.D. | October 9, 2012 | Opinion
The best tool for helping teachers in the classroom identify strengths and flaws: videotape

Any “teacher evaluation system” that does not have as its primary goal “teacher improvement” is a waste of time and money.

The primary goal in “teacher evaluation” should not be to judge “how good a teacher is,” but to help a teacher improve (not matter how good she/he is at the moment).

To put together a “teacher evaluation process” without focusing that process on “improvement of teaching” would be extremely short-sighted.

A teacher evaluation process may have as a secondary goal the mission of weeding out the “hopeless cases.” A well-designed process will certainly identify the really poor teachers who perhaps should not be in the classroom in the first place. But I can tell you after forty-eight years in education that there are relatively few of those teachers in our schools.

The group that will benefit most from a good evaluation system will be those teachers who do have the potential of being “really good” but do need some help from a master teacher along the way.

A good teacher is never satisfied with where she is at the moment. A teacher can always improve. Just as an athlete is always seeking to improve her performance and is never really “satisfied,” so a good teacher is never completely “happy” about her teaching skills.

The most important question for a “good” teacher evaluation system is: Is it helping the teacher improve her teaching?

There are at least two essential elements in an effective teacher evaluation system:

  • Classroom observation
  • A way to judge value-added learning
  • Classroom Observation

    If anyone tries to convince you that you can judge a teacher’s effectiveness or you can help a teacher improve her teaching without observing that teacher in a normal classroom situation — that person knows little or nothing about teaching.

    And the single most effective way to help a teacher improve through classroom observation is videotaping an entire classroom period under the care and guidance of a master teacher.

    I was a teacher for 10 years before I had the opportunity to observe my teaching on videotape. And I like to think that I was a rather good teacher at the time. But that one hour of viewing myself on videotape did more to improve my teaching than any other single experience of my long teaching career.

    Of course, a key element in using videotape as an instructional improvement tool is to create an atmosphere where the teacher is assured that the primary intent of the process is to help her improve — and not to threaten her job. And yes, this can be done if the process is designed and handled properly.

    A worthwhile teacher evaluation system must be supportive and not punitive. And a well-designed classroom observation model must be an integral part of such a system.

    Value-Added Learning

    There has been a lot of loose talk from people who know very little about education (or testing) to the effect that teachers must be “evaluated” on “test results.”

    Of course, we all know that what people really mean when they say this is that we would like to be sure that if a teacher has a child in her classroom for some length of time, then that child’s “education” has been advanced by an acceptable amount. And I think we can all agree that we would like to be able to measure this effectively.

    What we must be very careful about is not to assume that existing standardized tests really do this for us.

    Well-designed standardized tests give us some idea of “where a child is on the educational spectrum at this time.” What the test alone cannot do is tell us how much of that learning is attributable to this teacher.

    In order to do that, we would have to be able to measure where the child was at the beginning of instruction by this teacher and where the child is now — that is, what value has been “added” by the teacher.

    And, as teachers and test-designers know, this is an extremely difficult thing to do. Unfortunately, anyone who has never stood in front of a classroom full of students for an entire day or has never attempted to create such a test has very little appreciation for the difficulty of the job.

    And every concerned parent and citizen should be aware of a major problem that can result if a district relies too heavily on “test results” to “evaluate teaching.” And that problem is that teachers will begin to “teach to the test” — in which case virtually no true “learning” takes place.

    Anyone in our society who confuses “test preparation” with true learning does not have a good grasp of what our educational system should aspire to be.