Evaluating Teachers: A Complex And Controversial Exercise By Robert Bacal

It's a hot topic for parents, communities, schools and school boards, teachers and teacher's unions. How do you evaluate teachers fairly, and hold individual teachers accountable? The problem is that while it may seem simple to guage the success of individual teachers, at least in theory, it's an extremely complex issue, and there is no single way to do it in a cost effective and objective manner.

Primer Of Teacher Evaluation Terms And Methods

There are two ways of looking at teacher evaluation, with respect to how the evaluations are to be used.

Formative Evaluations

Formative evaluations are intended to improve the performance of a teacher by providing a means of delivering feedback to the teacher on what he or she is doing well, and how teaching can be improved. In other words the evaluations "form" the teacher's activities, in the future. It's simple. Formative evaluations should contain enough information, and specific enough information so the teacher can modfiy his or her teaching.

Summative Evaluations

Summative evaluation is what most people think of when they think of evaluation. They are much like a grade given to a student at the end of the year, and theoretically, form the basis of action. For the student it's going on to the next grade, while for the teacher, the actions may relate to firing the teacher, or retaining the teacher, removing a new teacher from probation, etc. The summative evaluation contains the "sum" of how the teacher teachers.

Methods Of Teacher Evaluation

Using Student Outcomes

Since teaching should be about student outcomes, or what the students learn, it makes at least common sense to evaluate teachers in terms of how their students do on some critiera, be it standardized tests, or grades, or some other measure of student accomplishment. The theory behind this is that better teachers will create more learning for students, and that the learning can be measured.


There are a number of weaknesses in this method, as there are in any method of "grading" teachers. First, there is incredible variance in the types of levels of students that a teacher has in the classroom. A teacher who works with dyslexic students, for example, faces a completely different task than a teacher who works with gifted students. It's often the case that teachers who are recognized as better teachers will be assigned some of the most difficult children.

One method of trying to counter-act this is to use change scores. That is, measure students on some criteria at the beginning of the year, then measure them at the end of the year. So, the emphasis would be on how much students improve rather than their absolute mastery. While that's somewhat intuitive, it is no improvement, because not only do student vary in native ability, but they vary in terms of the SPEED of learning. Change scores reward teachers who end up with students who are faster learners, and don't really evaluate teaching quality.

There are also concerns about the "teaching to the test" syndrome. If teachers are rewarded and punished to student test scores, there is pressure to teach so that students will do well on the tests, even if they aren't learning anything signficant. This isn't a flaw of the evaluation method so much as a flaw in how teachers make sense of it. In fact, if tests are a true measure of learning, and sample the curriculuum goals properly, a child who succeeds on tests, should also have learned more. Still, the concern remains.

Evaluating Teacher and Teaching Process

The other way of evaluating teachers is to observe their classroom behavior, and usually, rate them in some way along a set of criteria that the observers believe constitute effective teaching. In this model, a teacher might be observed by a principal, by peers, by someone from outside, and rated. The idea is that we are capable of observing and judging what constitutes effective teaching through observation.

Concerns abound about lack of objectivity and consistency. Will different observers evaluate similarly if they watch the same teacher? Probably not. Do we know for sure what universal teaching methods work and don't work? Probably not. What about rater and evaluation bias? That's a problem.

The best use of evaluating teachers through observation is to help them improve, rather than to come up with a summative evaluation of teaching quality. Evaluating the teaching process through observation can be a powerful tool to help teachers improve continuously, but is a very poor method for making decisions on how to reward teachers, except in the more rare cases of a simply terrible teacher, or a teacher who is clearly above average.


There are good reasons why teacher evaluations are both controversial, and important. If you are a parent, it may seem to you that the task of deciding who is a good teacher or a poor one, should be easy. It's not. For school administrators, it's important to understand that ALL methods of teacher evaluaton are flawed. We will never have flawless methods, so we need to recognize the flaws that exist in each approach, so we don't make poor decisions.

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Always contentious, the issue of how to evaluate teachers comes up often. Parents want accountability, but there is NO perfect method for evaluating teachers. In this section, we'll look at the issues and challenges.

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Practitioners, researchers, and policy makers agree that most current teacher evaluation systems do little to help teachers improve or to support personnel decision making. There's also a growing consensus that evidence of teacher contributions to student learning should be part of teacher evaluation systems, along with evidence about the quality of teacher practices. "Value-added models" (VAMs), designed to evaluate student test score gains from one year to the next, are often promoted as tools to accomplish this goal. Value-added models enable researchers to use statistical methods to measure changes in student scores over time while considering student characteristics and other factors often found to influence achievement. In large-scale studies, these methods have proved valuable for looking at factors affecting achievement and measuring the effects of programs or interventions (Views So Far 340 )


Self-Evaluation (12)
Not all teacher evaluation should be imposed or even involve others. Teachers can benefit from a semi-formal self-evaluation process that they control themselves.
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