Teacher Evaluation is Fatally Flawed

Are you ready for an interesting admission:  I don’t think I’m a very effective classroom teacher. 

Crazy, huh? 

How could a guy who has earned broad recognition for innovative thinking and instruction, been recognized as an accomplished teacher by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards twice, and placed in the top 8 of the state Teacher of the Year competition doubt his own abilities?

The answer’s actually pretty simple:  I know more about my own strengths and weaknesses than any of the outsiders who have chosen to celebrate my practice.

I know that I struggle to identify students who need extra practice with the individual skills that we’re studying in our classroom, mostly because I’m horrible at collecting, manipulating and analyzing data. 

I know that I struggle to provide meaningful enrichment opportunities to top-performers, mostly because I’m too busy answering emails, grading papers and going to meetings to design differentiated learning experiences. 

I know that–despite the best of intentions–I struggle to regularly engage my students in the kinds of self assessment practices that result in better learning. 

What’s really crazy is that despite all of these weaknesses, I’ve never earned anything other than top ratings on teacher evaluations over the course of the past 17 years. In fact, I’ve never even had an administrator suggest an area for improvement on an evaluation in my career.

None.  Zero.  Zip. 

According to the dozens of people who’ve been in charge of assessing my teaching, I’m satisfactory on a bad day and darn near perfect on a good one.  

That’s interesting, isn’t it? 

Wouldn’t you think that someone somewhere would have noted some of the same weaknesses in my practice that I see in myself?  Shouldn’t a guy who is so sure that he needs improvement see at least one or two "needs improvement" ratings on his evaluations somewhere in a 17-year career?

The sad reality–detailed thoroughly in this New Teacher Project study of the teacher evaluation practices in 12 districts across four states–is that few, if any, teachers see "needs improvement" ratings on their evaluations. 

According to the study:

  • 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory in districts that use simple "satisfactory or unsatisfactory" rating systems.
  • In districts with more sophisticated rating systems, 94 percent of teachers earn ratings in the top two categories, and less than 1 percent receive unsatisfactory ratings.

While the fact that teacher evaluations are completely failing to identify any teachers who could polish their practices is disturbing enough, the news in the New Teacher Project study only gets worse. 

Consider that:

  • 73 percent of teachers report that their most recent evaluation didn’t indentify any areas for improvement.
  • Only 45 percent of teachers who had areas for improvement noted in their evaluations reported receiving useful support.

Think about what all of this means:  We claim to care about seeing students succeed and we know that teachers are the most important school-based factor in ensuring student success, yet we report that 99 percent of our teachers are on the money.

We claim to care about seeing students succeed and we know that teachers are the most important school-based factor in ensuring student success, yet only 1 of 4 teachers–regardless of ability–gets any suggestions for improving their practice in their evaluations.

We claim to care about seeing students succeed and we know that teachers are the most important school-based factor in ensuring student success, yet less than half of the teachers with identified areas for improvement are given meaningful support.

If we really cared about seeing students succeed, wouldn’t we shun evaluation systems that rely on single administrators–already overwhelmed by the challenges of leading complex human organizations–to make judgments on educators that they may only see teach once or twice a year?

Wouldn’t we shun evaluation systems that provide no additional time for administrators and teachers to meet together to reflect on instructional strengths and weaknesses?

Wouldn’t we shun evaluation systems that aren’t backed up by the kinds of resources necessary for providing support–professional development, mentoring, ongoing classroom coaching–to struggling teachers. 

There’s no doubt about it:  Our systems and structures for evaluating teachers are fatally flawed.

And while there is nothing more repulsive to me than the simplistic evaluation policies based on student test scores being put forth as the solution to America’s education challenge—and while I have no faith that Oprah, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee are the right voices or have the right experiences to drive meaningful change— I’m also intimately aware of the need for changing teacher evaluation in our country.

After all, I’ve spent the better part of the past decade asking  for help that no one else seems to believe that I need. 

20 thoughts on “Teacher Evaluation is Fatally Flawed

  1. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Jessica,
    Good question—and I’d been meaning to write about my perceptions of the new NC teacher evaluation system.
    In short, I think it has a lot of potential for making evaluations more meaningful—especially for experienced teachers who were never really challenged to grow by the TPAI instrument.
    The problem is that it’s just too overwhelming in practice to really be meaningful.
    An example: I had a lesson the other day that I’m proud of and I thought, “This would make good evidence for my evaluation portfolio.”
    So I pulled out the 13 page rubric and started skimming through the 131 indicators trying to figure out exactly where it would fit best. The process took forever and I got frustrated, so I gave up. The lesson and the rubric are still sitting on my desk.
    If I were to change the system at all, I’d ask teachers to focus on collecting artifacts for one or two goals for the entire year. That kind of prolonged, concentrated focus on specific areas of practice is far more meaningful and productive than the scattered-ness that I’m currently feeling as I scramble around trying to find proof for 131 indicators.
    Does this make sense?
    Essentially, I see the tool as a massive waste of an opportunity to really make teacher evaluations more meaningful because it is an impossibly large document.
    Kind of like our curricula, huh?
    And it’ll have the same impact as our curricula—my improvement will be a mile wide, but an inch deep.
    Bill

  2. Len

    Mr. Ferriter,
    My name is Len. I will be summarizing my visits to your blog for Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 course at the University of South Alabama.
    I found your post quite intriguing. One thing that was not answered, and probably can’t be answered, is “why”. Why are teachers not evaluated more critically? I believe the answer is in some way related to money. Some teachers get paid far less than what they should. IF you were to, for example, increase teachers’ salary substantially, I believe they would be observed much more heavily. With teachers getting a bigger paycheck, someone will make it a point to make sure they are doing their job effectively. Or what if teacher salary was based on an intensive evaluation? Just a thought.

  3. John Tenny

    Wouldn’t it be more useful to get objective feedback on what was happening in your classroom – whether what you were doing or how the students were responding? Such as finding out the level of questions you ask and if those you call on represent the makeup of the class? Or exactly what behaviors you praise (effort is most effective, accomplishment is most common); or what kinds of questions student ask and who asks them? Or how long it takes students to comply with a teacher direction? Etc, Etc….
    Search for objective classroom observation software

  4. Beth in Vermont

    I’m fortunate that my district has a mentoring program. I have a mentor teacher who evaluates my work with the goal of helping me improve my practice. I appreciate this tremendously, and I’m happy to get her feedback because *I want* to do a better job. Don’t most people want get better at their jobs? Why do we give our students formative assessments but not ourselves?

  5. Cary

    The real problem is that “Needs Improvement” on an evaluation is deemed by administrators and outside viewers as “not a good teacher”. Obviously we all need improvement – every human being in every endeavor. But we don’t accept it in evaluations.

  6. Dina

    Bill,
    You may have accurately pinpointed the areas in which you need to improve, yes. You also are (IMHO) absolutely correct that teach evals are currently really crappy. But there’s a flip side, which is that crappy evals don’t correctly identify the ways in which you ARE a successful teacher, which are just as important to know as the ways in which we need to improve.
    And I think this may be an equal source of your far, far too sweeping statement that you are “ineffective.”
    It’s taken me a long, long time to understand that consistently undervaluing and mistrusting the work I do in the classroom is not a solid or responsible substitution for the lack of critical care we receive. It may *feel* responsible– it may even feel righteous, as if erring on the side of negativity will catch the errors clueless supervisors will never see. But this simply isn’t true.
    We are no different from our students in that regard.
    What would you say to a kid who was sitting in your class, saying “I just don’t think I’m a very effective learner?” Would you agree? Of course not. You would gently point out the ways in which that kid IS effective, show them their growth, and give them attainable goals for where to go next.
    What exempts you from treating yourself the same way?

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Nancy wrote:
    Teachers, in general, also need to change how they view evaluations. Almost every needs improvement I’ve ever given was countered with either excuses or anger—not appreciation for the suggestions for improvement
    I enjoyed your perspective here, Nancy, and agree that teachers need to change their perspective on evaluations.
    Like all things in the schoolhouse, I think the negative reactions you explain are—in some cases—the result of poor relationships and low levels of trust between administrators and teachers.
    When I’m given honest feedback by a leader I believe in, that feedback is nonthreatening and positive—I’m willing to take action on it.
    But when I’m given negative feedback by an administrator that I rarely see—and that I’ve never seen teach—all bets are off.
    Now, I’m not placing the blame for an administrator’s non-presence in my classroom only on his/her shoulders. The workday of a principal, from what I understand, is nothing short of insane. Finding time to build meaningful relationships by spending time in the hallways and classrooms has to be hard.
    But I will say that until relationships are strong, no amount of feedback is going to be worthwhile or productive.
    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

  8. bill01370

    Fascinating conversation in reaction to an excellent, thought-provoking blog. I’ll concede I’m one of the people who wants to get better but who gets really jittery if an administrator is in charge of my evaluations. That’s partly some tough history, partly some things I just need to get over. That said, I’ve had suggestions from administrators that have been helpful on the microlevel, but not that many that push me in a larger context.
    Honestly, what has helped me the most is building relationships with the kids and a mix of talking to them and having them fill out periodic evaluation forms. They’ll tell me the truths I want and need to hear, in a way that allows for my growth and through that improved learning for them.

  9. John Golden

    I think it’s because you don’t see much teaching when you just watch instruction. Sure that’s important, but you’re not seeing the planning, assessment and evaluation, nor are you hearing the teacher’s thinking about their teaching. Compare that to instructional coaching or lesson study, and it’s easy to see why it’s not effective.

  10. Nancy Blair

    Bill,
    I absolutely agree the system of teacher evaluation needs to change significantly. It’s not, however, just the system of evaluation that needs to change. For the kind of support you wish for, the culture of a school has to be built on trust and absolute faith that the administrator/teacher relationship is founded on a belief that everyone can improve. This shift is especially problematic because of the transient nature of so many school leaders. Although the trust may exist in one relationship, the next administrator will only see the “needs improvement” shown on the written record—without the context or backstory. Ideally, one would hope we could all focus on continuous improvement, but we’re certainly not there yet.
    It is also not only the administrators that need to change. Teachers, in general, also need to change how they view evaluations. Almost every needs improvement I’ve ever given was countered with either excuses or anger—not appreciation for the suggestions for improvement. I also find that the very best teachers are the ones who doubt their practice and actively seek ways to continually improve. It sets up an interesting dichotomy: Those who need the least help, crave it most, and those who really need help, resent it most.
    I also wonder whether the data is flawed as it likely is based solely on numbers or check boxes. Even when marking satisfactory on the form, I might write suggestions for improvement in the written comments. No formal “needs improvement” was marked, but room for improvement was certainly addressed. Right or wrong, I’ll also admit that I’ve had many conversations with exemplary teachers about ways to further improve or tweak lessons but did not put anything in writing.
    We all operated within this flawed system. The understanding of “needs improvement” does not have the same meaning to all, so it gets used sparingly.

  11. Rvesper

    I wonder what would happen if we funneled that money we spend on testing students to make sure they have all learned something into a system that developed teams of evaluators. These teams could honestly assess teachers but they could also offer support systems to help those teachers with their “needs improvement” areas. Of course the question becomes, “Where do these assessors come from?”

  12. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Matt,
    I couldn’t agree more with your comment. The parallels between the struggles that I have to meet the unique needs of every learner are no different than the challenges that administrators have trying to meet the unique needs of every teacher.
    In both cases, the primary evaluator has far too many people to assess in far too little time for the evaluations to really be meaningful.
    That’s the fatal flaw in my opinion—and it’s not something that I hold principals responsible for.
    Instead, that blame lies squarely at the feet of policymakers who can’t see that more time away from students is necessary if we’re actually going to get better at our jobs.
    We simply can’t keep pretending that teachers and administrators can make radical changes in the way that they work and learn when we’re not willing to provide any additional time for that working and learning to happen.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  13. Matt Townsley

    Bill,
    I am seeing a connection between teacher evaluation and your own admitted weaknesses in your classroom instruction.
    “I’m satisfactory on a bad day and darn near perfect on a good one.”
    Just like the high achievers in your own classroom that you admit you do have time to enrich, what makes you think your principal has time to stretch your limits as a high flying teacher?
    As a teacher turned central office administrator, I see countless parallels between student – teacher and teacher – administrator. Teacher evaluation systems are flawed just as much as student evaluation systems. When we try to use a single tool to assess the masses, whether its students or teachers, there are bound to be flaws.
    So, my response…teacher evaluation systems are flawed —- so are teachers and administrators. What’s new?

  14. Amanda Brewton

    Hi, Mr. Ferriter!
    My name is Amanda Brewton, and I’m a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. We have an EDM 310 Class Blog, and I keep up with my own blog: Amanda Brewton’s EDM 310 Class Blog. Feel free to visit them any time!
    I liked this post because it not only had to do with self-evaluation, but evaluation of your evaluators. I agree that we must self-reflect for improvement, but when all of your constructive criticism is coming from within, I agree that something needs to change. Sometimes, we may not want to hear that we’re doing an “okay” job…yet, how does one improve -or learn, for that matter- if they believe that they never do wrong or that they know everything?
    I enjoyed reading your blog!
    Amanda B.

  15. Angelica Scott

    Mr.Bill I am a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. I am only a junior so I do not know a lot about teacher evaluation. I think your blog post is very interesting. My dad is a administrator at a high school and I some what remember him talking about how he had to do teacher evaluations and how serious it really is.
    my blog

  16. Chris Ludwig

    Bill, I’m thinking about your mention of the overwhelmed administrator as the sole evaluator in most cases, which certainly has been my experience. They come in once or twice a year and get a brief glimpse of my classroom then maybe fill out a standard observation form, or worse, have me fill it out with them afterward, just to have on record. These evaluators are usually way outside their area of certification when observing my classes (HS science) and can rarely give helpful advice. It will probably be even worse this year since I’m also piloting a standards-based grading system that is pretty foreign to most people in our district.
    This leads me to wonder: who would be best at evaluating me? The people that come to mind that have expertise in the areas that I would like to improve in are all part of my PLN/Twitter network. In some ways they are my ‘true’ evaluators with the comments and pushback they give on my blog and elsewhere. Perhaps I can find ways that my district would recognize those interactions as part of an evaluation process. It would probably be a lot more meaningful than just “satisfactory.”

  17. Susan

    I also have never been given any indication of areas for improvement for my teaching. Had I not spent, and continue to spend, hours reflecting and reading, I would have not improved at all.
    My door is open every single period that I teach. I have given out invitations to my administrators, fellow teachers, student teachers working for another practicing teacher and even the secretary of my grade level to come and visit my class and take a look around. I can count on one hand the number of times that it has happened.

  18. Melissa

    I don’t have the years that you do, but I have said the same thing each year. Where is my “help”? When is someone going to put time into my craft developement?
    Because I am good, I am virtually ignored. If nothing else comes from the lastest reform movement, perhaps some true evaluation reform will occur.
    Thank you for always challenging my thinking!

  19. Ah65928

    I agree but I wonder if one of the primary contributing factors is the fear of running teachers off. Not that this is a valid excuse but I think in general in our culture criticism is not taken well. I’m on board with you. I teach at the university level and have been fortunate to have had peer reviewers who were not afraid to give me some helpful feedback. The problem also seems paralleled sometimes with our students. It’s too easy to stay too busy to give them enough helpful feedback when that should probably be our primary function.

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