Here & Now, a program on National Public Radio, discussed the controversy in Chicago that led to a teachers strike. One of the key strike points is teacher evaluation. I have not completed all the thinking that I will be doing on this topic, but as a lean management student, I will weigh in anyway.
This exchange was apparently common during the long consulting and teaching career of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. “But if we eliminate performance appraisal, then what will we replace it with?” He would reply, “Try leadership.” So what is wrong with teacher evaluations?
One lesson I learned from Deming over 25 years ago was the problem created by failing to address variation. First, you have to understand what variation is. The plain and simple fact is that one half of all variable actions will be, by definition, above the median. And if one half is above, the other half must be below. We know that teachers come to their organization with a great deal of variation in their performance. All employees do.
A second is that systems are complex, and if you establish performance criteria, which you have to do in a performance appraisal system, it will be human nature to focus on the performance criteria to the exclusion of the rest of the system. I see this every day. Set a performance goal, and most of the resources flow to that goal.
Teachers have to make a living, and they chose to teach both to make a living and to have pride in what they do. A bad appraisal system, and all of them are bad, jeopardizes their living. A bad appraisal can ruin a career, for even a good teacher. All appraisal systems create fear in the employees who are evaluated. And the variation among evaluators also creates fear because of subjectivity. Some of us are not that social or likeable, and many evaluations are subjectively based on likeability.
Evaluations are deemed to be valid. Because they are subjective, their validity is subject to challenge. And the work done by each teacher takes place in an incredibly variable workplace. Some classrooms may be composed of very motivated kids, others of very troubled kids. Teachers and administrators should be working towards reducing the variability in the student levels of knowledge and skills. I don’t ever remember being taught how to achieve in a classroom. Assessment was non-existent. If I missed a core lesson, as I frequently did because of family related absence, there was no method for back filling that lesson. Often it affected all of my future learning.
Teacher evaluation is a terrible idea. Teacher development is a great idea. Teaching standard work doesn’t exist, but it could. Maybe I will write about that in a future blog.