Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dangers in the New Teacher Evaluation System

The recent vote in the legislature to introduce a new teacher evaluation system is long overdue. The current system and metrics have failed to have any noticeable impact on teacher performance and was an inadequate system for identifying subpar teachers and acknowledging exemplary work. Hopefully the new metrics will serve as a precursor to creation of a new system of remuneration based on performance rather than years of service. However, before our political and education leaders start patting themselves on the back over this new law, there is one great danger and one potential unintended consequence of the legislation that must be considered.

I am extremely skeptical and concerned about the power given to principals in this new evaluation system. Schools, like most other workplaces I suspect, are full of drama, and principals, being human (at least we assume so) are just as prone as others to be driven by emotion and prone to making decisions based on personality and their own perception of what makes a good teacher, even though my experience and conversations with other teachers confirms my belief that many principals were not particularly good teachers, hence their interest to go into administration. With tenure now tethered to the outcome of performance reviews that were once perfunctory but now extremely consequential, the lack of any real countervailing power to that of principals should raise a red flag to any outspoken, unconventional, or “different” teacher that does not “fit the mold” in the eyes of the principal.

This leads me to a second concern, which is the risk aversive nature of the new evaluation system. I am extremely concerned that the new system will discourage innovation and risk taking on the part of teachers, especially in the inner city where such behaviors are needed but where the pressure on principals to “catch” poor teachers is extremely high. What if the attempt at “trying something new” doesn’t have the payoff the teacher intended? He or she will certainly learn from the experience, but why take the risk of getting a bad evaluation, which will trigger even greater scrutiny and place the teacher on a path to tenure revocation? Without some affirmation from principals that innovation and risk taking are to be encouraged and supported, I suspect that most teachers will refrain from such actions.

It is critical that principals set clear expectations for the faculty, and that it be made clear those teachers will not be punished for trying new things- as long as they have valid educational objectives- in the classroom. I would also hope that principals, will, on their own initiative, will create a framework for evaluation at their school which voluntarily sets up a “check” on their evaluations so that teachers are not intimidated and otherwise discouraged from taking risks, being outspoken, or just “being themselves” because it doesn’t comport to what the principal sees as being the “proper kind” of teacher.

It’s great that we are moving forward in the area of evaluation and accountability, but let’s not be too sanguine. There is great potential for missteps.

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