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Teacher Evaluation And Accountability: When Entitled Parents Meet Entitled Teachers

Across the world in workshops on various topics, trustees ask this consultant how boards should really assess the quality of teaching that the school delivers. In the words of one trustee chair: “The head tells us our faculty is among the best. But how do we really know that? Don’t all heads say that? Given rising tuition rates, parents press us to be assured of more consistent quality.”

Teacher evaluation tends to be done more systematically in public schools. Many former public school teachers tell us that that they are surprised by the decrease in the amount of supervision, mentoring, guidance and evaluation that they experience in their independent schools. Often teachers in our independent schools take their “autonomy” for granted, yet it forms the core of their professional quality of life.

In working with a recent independent school, literally every teacher of forty five cited the “autonomy” of teaching as the quality they liked most about their school. The quality of students and colleagues ranked highly as well for teachers but that sense of autonomy was key to their sense of professional satisfaction. They defined autonomy as being allowed to design their own teaching methodology, curriculum and style and the relative lack of close supervision.

Some could not recall their last formal evaluation. Most equated evaluation with the division head observing their room somewhat perfunctorily and not according to any particular guidelines. Most often the teachers did not understand the process that the Division Head was following. Having interviewed over 40,000 teachers worldwide on this topic, this consultant was not surprised by these comments.

While teachers often like to be “left alone”, at some level many realize that they need and want: affirmation of their teaching by knowledgeable professionals; honest and substantive feedback; assistance with professional growth; a yardstick to measure improvement in their own teaching; and enhancement of the collegial dialogue about the teaching process.

The quandary for independent school teachers often lies in not wanting supervision or evaluation to crimp personal style while seeing some sort of evaluation as inevitable and desirable. Teachers in some schools have become “entitled”. That is, while they may not be well paid compared to those in other professions, their quality of life and independence have become a pattern. Any intrusion upon those patterns or that autonomy can represent an assault upon a treasured right. The assault can come from or be forced by “entitled” parents.

Parents today tend to have fewer children, more wealth, more time, a higher level of education, and more drive to monitor the education of their children even if that means appearing intrusive to administrators and teachers. “Helicopter parents” (as they are sometimes called) pressure boards to fix what they perceive to be the teaching “issues”, and to “get rid of the dead wood.” Trustees in turn pressure heads to demonstrate that they are engaging in a process of substantive evaluation. Heads feel caught in the middle. And they are.

Some heads will adopt evaluation approaches that are “soft” so as not to ruffle too many feathers. Yet these beg the issue of assessing in a meaningful and affirming manner the consistency in the quality of teaching.

On the other hand, if schools, teachers and administrators design appropriate criterion- based evaluation programs that offer more than “window dressing” and then in turn publicize those to parents, they can release some of that pressure which parents put upon boards and heads. Good evaluation programs normally include these elements:

  1. Self evaluation against professional goals and school approved criteria
  2. A team of evaluators including administrators and teachers from a trained pool of volunteers who undertake frequent announced and unannounced class observations and post observation feedback sessions that hold up a mirror of the teacher’s work.
  3. Student feedback on a regular basis where appropriate
  4. Analysis of a teacher’s “work”
  5. Periodic criterion referenced tests (not standardized tests)

The key is to make evaluation more frequent but not so frequent as to make the process superficial, burdensome or intrusive.

It is almost impossible in terms of time demands on division heads and others to evaluate every teacher substantively every year. BUT equally it can be a waste of time to wait five years or more to evaluate teachers or to neglect the senior teacher. Waiting five years or more allows the loss of too many opportunities for teachers to improve and to reflect upon their practice.

The ideal would be substantive evaluation every two to three years for more seasoned professionals and every year for the first three years or so for new teachers or teachers new to the school.

Most of those supervising and evaluating teachers have never been trained in this craft. The assumption is that once an administrative title is conferred, the assignment is understood. Too many supervisors lack the confidence, competence and proven tools to evaluate effectively. One division head conveyed to this writer that “evaluation was an unfortunate necessity imposed by the demands of parents and the times.”

The best evaluation begins with really committed, well trained department heads who understand, accept and even relish their key role as “middle management” in providing supervision to their own department members. However, we know that this seldom happens. Department heads, even with lower loads and higher stipends, are seldom chosen or trained to evaluate and supervise their department members. They oversee budgets, help to hire new staff, review curriculum but find it very uncomfortable to evaluate seriously the performance of their peers. Yet, this group can be the most important link to improving teaching at all levels of the school, not just the high school.

Most middle and especially elementary schools lack middle level supervisors. Grade level coordinators often do not have a supervisory aspect to their role. However, it could be added.

The challenge for heads is to help department heads, coordinators and division heads feel “entitled” and privileged to provide helpful, substantive, consistent evaluation, but not just to meet the demands of hovering parents. In turn, these parents are “entitled” to that expectation and if they sense that effective evaluation is being implemented more, parents will intrude less.

John Littleford
Senior Partner