Teacher Evaluations are Upside Down

My Charleston Gazette op-ed is included in my hope to soon publish  The Soviet Union and Lincoln County USA:

In the evaluation of any product, the user says how good it is. The customer evaluates the product and decides whether to purchase another and recommend it to their friends.
Don’t for a minute think I equate education with products for sale. Learning is a wonderful experience, it is not a product. Learning should not be managed like a business or in a military fashion. The idea of learner outcomes reminds me of the instructors I had in Air Force basic training. They had a list of what their students would learn and stuck with it. Nothing creative or new happened. The outcomes were pre-ordained, no discoveries expected nor wanted.
Who knows best how well a teacher is doing? Could it possibly be the users, the students? Who knows best how well the principal is doing his job? Could it be the teachers who know how well they are being served?
The evaluation system in schools when I was teaching ninth through twelfth grades , 1977-1998, had the principals evaluating the teachers, the teachers evaluating the students and the students were never asked.
Assuming the user knows best, the students should evaluate the teachers and the teachers evaluate the principal. And for hiring it should run in a similar direction. Teachers would interview candidates and hire the principal who could best serve the teachers. Because politics are so pervasive at the administrative levels in public education, I hesitate to propose that principals evaluate and hire the superintendant. Maybe teachers should do that too.
I remember observing a class in California when the principal made an unannounced visit. The teacher in mid-sentence changed his presentation to one that he had especially prepared for such occasions. He was good at it and the principal was impressed. But students can’t be fooled like that, they are there every day. And the principal may be able to fool the superintendent but not the teachers who experience his leadership or lack of it every day.
“Hardly anything.” Was the answer I got when I asked his former student what a certain teacher taught. That teacher had political connections. I doubt if the former student’s honest, from the gut evaluation ever appeared in top down evaluations.
Some say students can’t be trusted to be fair in evaluating teachers nor take the responsibility seriously. I tried student evaluations several times with ninth through twelfth grade students. I found that when I gave students responsibility they were glad to be treated with respect and as a result acted responsibly.

Student fairness was not what teachers needed to fear. It was far more likely that a principal with a political grudge would use the evaluation system to harass or get rid of a teacher.
Even if student evaluations are not included in the evaluation of a teacher they should at least be presented to the teacher for their consideration. It was good for this teacher to know what my students thought I was good at and where they thought I needed improvement. No one knew better than my students whether learning took place in my class.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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