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Teacher evaluation: A good bet?

06.06.13 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments

By Joseph F. Murphy


At different times on the school reform carousel ride, one or more of the animals enjoy special prominence. In the 1980s and early 1990s, school-based management was thrust into the spotlight. For the last 15 years, charter schools have been brightly illuminated. At the current time, teacher evaluation in on the center stage of school reform. So it’s appropriate to ask: Is teacher evaluation a good bet to improve schooling? Everyone that we run up against encourages us to mortgage the farm on this one. But my colleagues Phil Hallinger, Ron Heck, and I remain skeptics.

To begin with, all the evidence available tells us that no single reform will carry us to our destination. So, even if it is a viable avenue of improvement, it can only work if it’s integrated into a tapestry of change. For the record, it isn’t usually presented in this light.

In addition, teacher evaluation isn’t exactly a new idea. Principals have been evaluating teachers for over a century. The reality is that there is very little evidence to suggest that it has done anything to improve schooling. Teacher evaluation has helped buffer schools from outside pressures. It has provided a patina of legitimacy to operations. These are important. But they shouldn’t be confused with school improvement. And if social scientists are correct and past is indeed prelude, we should be cautious about claims that teacher evaluation will carry more school improvement freight in the future than it has in the past.

Teacher evaluation isn’t new but it has helped buffer schools from outside pressures and given a patina of legitimacy to operations.

But let’s put our concerns aside and entertain the notion that is a new world in which teacher evaluation is transformed into a muscled tool of school change. Surely, we would be wise to pursue this pathway. Perhaps — but perhaps not. Throughout the entire discussion of teacher evaluation over the last few years, we have uncovered no talk about what this tool actually is: an instrument of industrial era management, of wise managers directing the work of the laboring class. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this per se, although no one speaks about teacher evaluation this way because it is indelicate and off putting. The real problem here is that it privileges organizational architecture (bureaucracy, hierarchy, and institutionalism) that the profession is fighting desperately and appropriately to dismantle. So there may be a new world forming, but, if there is, the central pillars of industrial management will not fit well, if at all.

Let’s accept that we’re wrong and that tools from hierarchy will transfer into community-anchored schools. We’re left with three truths that make the odds on this wager very small indeed. First, managers, by and large, are not qualified to do this work. They are not head teachers nor are they managing partners. We’ve been down this road before, only to end up with the most shallow perspectives of learning and teaching imaginable, better than no perspectives but not by much. Second, managers have no appetite to do this work. In the well-choreographed play called “schooling,” leaders avoid interfering with the work of teachers. They buy compliance with the currency of autonomy. They know that changing this production in any substantial way is not wise. Third, anyone who takes the time to run the analyses will quickly discover that even if points one and two were to miraculously change, there’s no time to do this work. Our assessment is that principals devoted about three minutes per teacher per week on teacher revaluation. The time to do this well can’t be mandated or wished into existence. And glib discussions of adding help for principals to do this work ignore every shred of evidence available on the willingness of the public to increase administrative costs in education.

OK. Assume that all of the realities discussed above are reworked in the favor of teacher evaluation so that it works, i.e., it powers school improvement. One issue remains: There are more powerful ways for principals to influence school improvement than by working one-on-one with teachers using evaluation tools. Administrators have three avenues of influence over teachers: Direct one-on-one work, direct work with clusters of teachers (e.g., departments, action-research teams), and indirect work in which they mold the conditions and factors that in turn shape teaching and learning (e.g., professional culture, curriculum, climate for students). The evidence is that option three is the most robust pathway to school improvement.

Everyone is free to make his or her own bets on school reforms. Our analysis tells us that there are wagers with much better odds than teacher evaluation.


About Joseph F. Murphy

JOSEPH F. MURPHY is the Frank W. Mayborn chair of education and associate dean at Peabody College of Education, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. His last Kappan article, coauthored with Kerri Tobin, was “Homelessness comes to school: How homeless children and youths can succeed,” Phi Delta Kappan, November 2011 (Vol. 93, No. 3), pp. 32-37.

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