Betsy DeVos, Education, Teachers — June 4, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Some unpopular thoughts on teacher evaluation


I’ve been working on teacher evaluation for most of my career as a teacher, administrator, and teacher educator; first being evaluated, then doing the evaluation as an assistant principal and subject area coordinator, then helping design a state-wide beginning teacher evaluation initiative. After nearly 40 years in education, all I can say is that the current system is the worst I’ve ever seen.

If the goal of these systems was to get rid of the so-called “bad teachers” that supposedly exist in great numbers in our schools, it has been spectacularly ineffective. Every form of teacher evaluation winds up identifying only between 1-3% of teachers as “ineffective”–yet we continue to spend precious money and time in the vain attempt to purge the system of these “bad teachers”.

Here’s the truth–it’s a colossal waste of time to keep pouring good money after bad in this attempt. Why?

Not because there are zero weak teachers–there are some, though as most will acknowledge, a surprisingly small number.

Because bad teachers self-select, and weed themselves out of the classroom well before any evaluation system “catches” them. Why?

Because the job is too hard to do it without finding any level of satisfaction or fulfillment–and the money isn’t good enough to keep them in the classroom, unlike other jobs where people report low satisfaction, but remain in the job for the financial rewards.

Here’s another truth–we know quite a lot about how to evaluate teachers. And we, quite simply, don’t have the stomach to do it. Why?

Because it requires time, money, and effort. It also requires knowledgeable experts to spend copious amounts of time in teachers’ classrooms, watching them teach, talking about teaching, providing professional development to address the teacher’s reflections on their practice, and targeted feedback on matters of content, pedagogy, and instruction.

I’ve helped design such a system, and even though it wasn’t perfect, it worked better than just about any other approach. It still didn’t “catch” large numbers of bad teachers, though. Why?

Because they just don’t exist.

What this approach to teacher evaluation did do was empower those teachers to “own” their own practice, and to be responsible for their own improvement. It was also a valuable form of professional development for the experienced teachers who served as the “evaluators,” many of whom reported that they learned more about teaching from participating in the process than from other forms of professional development.

You know what isn’t very useful? For non-experts to provide their “feedback” on teacher quality–which in our current environment is most of what we get. All-knowing policy pronouncements from folks who have never attended a public school, never sent their own children to a public school, have no degrees in education, and have never taught anyone anything, but are now–because of how much wealth they have squirreled away, in positions of authority over public education in our country. (Psst…that’s you, Betsy…)

At the risk of sounding rude and condescending, unless it’s about providing evidence of a teacher abusing a child or committing some sort of crime against a child–in which case, as a court-mandate reporter, I’m obligated to go to law enforcement with those claims–I really am not interested in “your thoughts” about how well you think your kid’s teacher is doing. because you don’t know. Why?

Because the teacher one parent thinks is awful, another parent thinks is a hero. It’s why we don’t have the relatives of crime victims serve as the judge and jury for the persons suspected of committing those crimes.

Because they aren’t objective–and they aren’t supposed to be. Parents are supposed to see the world through their kids’ eyes. It’s not their job to evaluate teachers. And unless you are a teacher, or an administrator in your kid’s school, it’s not your job either.

I’ve been teaching since 1980, and get asked to do evaluations of music teachers all the time–and I always say no. Why?

Not because I don’t know what “good teaching” looks like–I do. But that’s just *my* opinion of what good teaching looks–or sounds–like. Because I don’t feel qualified to judge another teacher if I haven’t worked in their context; understand their students, their colleagues and principals, understand their building and district “culture”, who had their job before they did, what are the community’s expectations, what that teacher’s background is, and dozens of other specifics that can’t be captured on the 4-point scale we currently use.

And now, two final notes:

With respect to parents as “consumers”: When you make this comparison it only reveals your misunderstanding of the complexity of teaching and learning. Education is not a business. And it should not be run like one.

My kids have had teachers I thought were great, and ones I didn’t think were so hot. It happens. And when it does, it’s my job to do what I can to help my child keep learning. Not to pretend I know better than them how to do their job–because guess what? I don’t. And neither do you.

With respect to improving parental involvement: You know what teachers want you to do?

  • help their kids do their home work
  • make sure they practice their instruments
  • make sure they get to all school events, concerts, plays, sporting events, etc.
  • travel with them
  • take them to museums and art galleries
  • watch movies
  • read to them
  • feed them healthy meals
  • spoil them with ice cream
  • sing to them
  • play with them
  • let them know that all those tests they are forced to take don’t tell us anything about how much they know, or who they are

Try to support what their teachers do with them for 7-8 hours per day. And tell them that they should respect their teachers–and model that respect by not complaining about them at home in front of their kids.

  • Thank you! I wish more people understood this. When I see numbers about how many teachers quit within the first few years of teaching, my thought is that either they weren’t cut out for it or they weren’t given appropriate supports within the school. I do see the occasional “burnt out” teacher at the end of the career that is maybe not putting in 100% effort, but generally if they’ve made it that far, their students aren’t being harmed. Plus I’d like to see any 60 year old have the same energy in their profession as they did when they were thirty.

  • Colleen Yarnell

    One thing you forgot on your list for parents-Talk to your child. Listen to your child. Raise your child. dont grow them like weeds

  • Cathy Sutton

    What you don’t mention is that these “evaluations” can be used against good teachers that either stepped out of line or that an administrator just wants gone. I know this from my own experience. A couple years ago I spoke out about a practice I felt was hurting our students. This practice was budget driven, not student driven. I know I made my principal angry because I went over his head. The practice continued despite my pleas but interestingly the next year I ended up with a “Needs Improvement” rating. My principal wrote me up for two incidents (that he did not even witness) which he said demonstrated my respect to students, teachers, parents, etc. Respect is a core professional indicator so he used this to deduct an entire point from my overall evaluation. This took me from “Effective” to “Needs Improvement.” I talked to my union and our Head of Academics and discovered I could not fight this. I wasn’t put on any kind of improvement plan although I told my principal and the assistant principal (who was actually my primary evaluator) that I would be willing to do what every they thought would help me to improve. I asked repeatedly for specifics on what I had done wrong and what I needed to change and never got them. I even made a general apology to the principal and it was then that he mumbled something about how I had embarrassed him and the school the year before. That’s when it became clear to me that this was in retaliation for my speaking out the previous year although there was no way that I could prove this. I wouldn’t have minded the “Needs Improvement” rating because I realize it was meaningless, but because of it I lost my raise and bonus for this year and THAT hurt. This year I jumped back up to “Effective” without making any major changes beyond keeping my mouth shut. Sad but true.

    • John Russell Lemaire


    • TeacherPattiS

      Totally. One supervisor hates me with the heat of a thousand suns (and legit told me that people with mental health issues should not be teaching. I regret to this day that I didn’t record that). The other loves me (and vice versa, she is great). This year, my buddy evaluated me and it was wonderful and she had good feedback (but honestly, just not saying “the mentally ill” should not be with kids, I mean right there she was ahead of the game) but next year, my job will depend on who does the evals.

  • Cloris Ellis

    Good article…I agree. Thank you.

  • BurinMRB

    Thanks to Mr. Mitchell for a well-thought out discussion about teacher evaluations.
    (Don’t know why our other ‘professionals’ aren’t being continually evaluated…)

    • ralphlaw

      Other professionals are being evaluated.

      Someone who’s not doing a good job as a teacher can do a lot of damage to students. Sometimes it just takes one disinterested teacher for a student who’s already on the fence.

      • Sandra Haak

        Then it is the parent’s job to work with their child and the teacher to improve their child’s experience. If that doesn’t work, ask the principal to move the child to a different classroom. The professor who wrote the article is correct, in any classroom there are many parents who are happy. Sometimes the child of the unhappy parent is very happy with the teacher and embarrassed by their parents. It is always a “ménage a trois.”

  • Melinda

    Thoughtful and well written. My children’s principal said, “The longer I’m out of the classroom, the better I think I was.” I thought that was genius. Once you’re out from the front lines with 30 squirmy little humans, you forget how difficult teaching can be.

  • ralphlaw

    We have “bad evaluations” precisely because of the attitude in this editorial ( which has no references ). Teachers and union fight evaluations all the way instead of helping craft them. The result is that the only people left to create these evaluations are not the ones who should do so.

    EVERY PROFESSION that produces a critical result is measured. It does not matter how many “bad” teachers you THINK there are. We owe it to the community ( remember the ones that actually pay your salary ) to have some sort of checks and balances.

    • BurinMRB

      If you have never taught school or college–you do NOT know what you are talking about.

    • BurinMRB

      Do NOT know how, nor why other professions are being evaluated–perhaps you can enlighten me. [And, don’t forget to name those who are doing the qualifications of those who are doing the evaluating.]
      What is your profession? And, who evaluates you?

  • ralphlaw

    Also we fully understand Peer-reviews are not the best mode of evaluation. But this is used because it’s the ONLY evaluation model Unions will agree too!

  • Philip Palmer

    I disagree with your statement that poor teacher self select themselves for removal from the classroom. Some may, but not everyone is motivated by pay and fulfillment toward any job. Some think they are doing a good job in spite of the reviews, especially if they don’t believe in the review process. Others simply want to keep a job and remain inside their comfort zone because they fear looking for another job. I think that most poor teachers stay there thinking they will improve in the future, but never really take the steps to do so because they are already over worked, underpaid or under appreciated.

  • TeacherPattiS

    We are using the 5D thing this year. But one good thing–previously, we had to have students fill out evaluations asking if we are “nice” and “fun”. I teach special ed kids who do not want to be identified as special ed. Guess what they thought about me?

  • Todd Holden

    The other thing teachers want parents to do is stop making excuses for their child’s behavior, stop doing everything for their child & hold them accountable for their learning.

  • SPRuis

    The problem is “evaluation,” which means to put a value on. Teachers teach students and grade them based upon how much they are learning. That does not put a value on those children. What is needed is for teachers to have goals for their teaching, support for them learning, and then they need to be evaluated based upon how much they are getting better at their jobs.

    Nobody should be evaluated as these schemes imply, basically asking the question: are you good enough to continue working here. That is a threat and teachers are not motivated by threats, or money, or any of the other things edufomers think teachers are motivated by.

  • Betsy

    By the logic of this article, no one is in any position to judge any teacher. We are also meant to take at face value the author’s assessment that the number of bad teachers is very few. Fair enough: ZERO accountability then! YAY! Note: arguments like this are exactly why the teaching profession is judged to be less-than-rigorous and not-terribly-intellectual, most especially among professionals who ARE subject to scrutiny and assessment. Arguments like these fuel the resentment among educated and engaged parents who wonder why (and how) infamously awful teachers remain in the classroom for years and years with impunity (don’t worry…I’m sure these parents will swallow the idea that their opinions simply don’t matter and they are just too ignorant to know anything about anything). Keep spewing this drivel and you’ll see a whole lot more so-called “anti-teacher” attitudes in your local communities. Does it make you feel smarter, wiser, superior to discount the experiences of families? (Note: if you discount parents, you’re also totally discounting the impact teachers have on their students– I thought that was a big rah-rah cheer for teachers, no?) This nonsense might make you feel special and important, but folks outside the profession read this stuff and think: spoiled, arrogant, obnoxious.