Teacher Evaluations: Merit, Worth and the Courage to Act

One of the greatest influences on my thinking about evaluation is the work of Michael Scriven.  Currently Director of the Claremont Graduate University Claremont Evaluation Center, he has a research, teaching and consulting career extending more than 60 years. I first encountered his ideas when writing my doctoral dissertation in the 90’s, and, after all these years, still find hiswork, whether older or more recent, immensely helpful.  With the endless proliferation of ever-more complex teacher evaluation systems, often hastily developed in response to political demands for more “accountability,” and frighteningly, and often damagingly, high stakes for teachers and schools, I find Scriven refreshing in his insight and clarity about the fundamental issues underlying evaluation in general, and teacher evaluation specifically.

Consider the most basic question: what is evaluation? Michael Scriven succinctly defines it as “the process of determining merit, worth or significance” (Scriven, 2007, The Logic of Evaluation).

I find that Scriven’s notion that “merit” and “worth” are different is very significant for the practice of evaluation.  Merit is about quality. How good is the teacher at her craft?  How effectively does she teach?  How engaging are her lessons? How valid and transparent is her assessment of student work?

Worth, however, considers the value of the individual to the organization.  The outstanding football coach’s lacklustre classroom lessons may have little merit, but he may have great value to the school.  The mediocre English teacher, because his family are generous financial supporters, may likewise have much value to the school despite his mediocre teaching.  School administrators will not want to alienate such “valuable” though perhaps not particularly meritorious teachers.  Indeed, it takes considerable courage to separate the real value that such teachers bring to their schools from the quality of the teaching ostensibly being evaluated. (That is one reason I believe that external evaluators can often do a better job of evaluating teachers’ performance than the school administrators.  Their judgements are not clouded by the practical considerations that must drive administrators’ work.)

So what is an administration to do about a teacher who is very valuable to the school despite her teaching being less-than stellar, or worse?  Firstly, it is important to honestly recognize the teacher’s shortcomings as well as her strengths, and her valuable contributions to the school.  To do so, the evaluator needs to be conscious of the danger of the “halo” effect. This phenomenon, first written about by Edward Thorndike, is well known.

“People tend to view others holistically, that is, as all good or all bad. This is referred to as the ‘halo effect’ because often it seems one characteristic (albeit positive or negative) seems to ‘outshine’ others and bias our perception in the respective direction.”
(Kayla Causey and Aaron Goetz, 2009, A Natural History of the Modern Mind, reprinted in Psychology Today, 2018)

If the valuable staff member, but ineffective teacher, is willing and able to improve, then one, of course, helps him just as one would any teacher with his professional growth. The more difficult issue is what one does about the valuable teacher who is unwilling or unable to improve his classroom practice.  The best course of action might be to reassign the teacher to capitalize on his strengths without suffering the consequences of his inadequacies.  Could the excellent football coach be assigned full-time to a coaching position?  Could the financially well-connected teacher be reassigned to a fund development position? Of course, such possibilities are much more available in a relatively large and well-endowed school than a small one with very limited financial resources.

Sometimes a less radical change of teaching assignment can make a huge difference.  I once even reorganized my school mid-year – something no principal lightly undertakes – to move a grade 5 teacher whose management of her classes’ behaviour had deteriorated to the point where it simply could not be allowed to continue.  My choice was stark:  reassign her mid-year or terminate her.  By switching her into grade 2, she was transformed from a hopelessly ineffective teacher to a very successful one.  Grade 2 was simply a much more appropriate placement for her.  In fact I came to the view that if evera member of my staff was struggling, my first question to myself was whether the problem was mis- assignment – an administration error – rather than inadequate skill.

Another lesson I have learned is that not every teacher accurately assesses his own strengths.  When I was a beginning principal, I believed that the most effective way of organizing my school was, as nearly as possible, to place each teacher in the situation she wanted.  While I still believe that is true in most cases, I have learned that there are a significant number of teachers whose self-perception is so inaccurate that they do not do best where they think they will.  A number of times I have placed teachers over their strenuous objections in assignments to which they felt they were ill-suited.  This has sometimes been because the staffing needs of the school left me no choice, usually because of enrolment shifts from one year to the next where one needed fewer sections of one grade but more of another. However, at other times, it is because I judged that they would do better in the other assignment.  In almost all those cases, the teacher told me later that to their enormous surprise, they loved their new assignment, and asked me to promise never to move them out of it!

A teacher whose merit would seem to be less than her worth often simply needs some professional development or a change in assignment.  “Merit” is not a fixed characteristic.  Appropriate administrative action can often transform a relatively ineffective teacher to one who displays considerable merit, to the great benefit of himself, his students, and his school.

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