What If We Stopped Evaluating Teachers?

shifting-conversations-logo“How much of our “progress” as teachers has been spurred by fear of failure, of punishment, of low test scores, of a poor evaluation?”

That’s a question that has me thinking this morning, asked in an interesting blog post by Arthur Chiaravalli on Medium. It’s especially compelling considering my recent trip to Finland (summarized in our ChangeLeader Facebook group…join us!) Probably the most surprising thing I heard in talking to teachers there is that they do not get evaluated. As in never. As in, no personal improvement goals, no alignment to test scores, no unannounced “visits” to monitor what’s happening in the classroom.

I want to unpack that a bit here because it feels like such a radical concept to teachers in the United States. (From what I understand, regular evals and observations also aren’t required in Australia and New Zealand either, and vary from province to province in Canada.)

As Pasi Sahlberg commented in his most recent book:

“The Finnish education system lacks rigorous school inspection, and it does not employ external standardized student testing to inform the public about school performance or teacher effectiveness. Teachers also have professional autonomy to create their own school-based work plan and curriculum.”

I mean, imagine if American teachers were treated in the same way. To do so however, would require a total shift in thinking.  It would require teacher preparation courses that ensured all teachers were highly educated, trained as true professionals in the best schools in the country.

If we’re being honest, our teacher pre-service programs by and large currently do not have a high bar for entry, are not steeped in learning theory, and are too often not the most rigorous in terms of practical preparation. By contrast in Finland, the cut score to be accepted into a university teaching program is the equivalent to that of medicine or law. That’s simply not the case here in the U.S. at least.

finnish_classroom2First, it would mean, as is true in Finland, that all teachers were highly educated, as in trained as true professionals in the best schools in the country. The cut score to be accepted into a university teaching program on the national test at the end of high school is equivalent to that of doctors and lawyers. Even then, only about 1 in 10 applicants to education programs are accepted. They undergo a rigorous interview process before being accepted. If we’re going to be brutally honest, that’s simply not the case here in the U.S. at least. Teacher pre-service programs by and large do not have a high bar for entry, are not steeped in learning theory, and are not the most rigorous in terms of practical preparation. We seem to focus a lot on classroom management, and we do little if anything to contextualize technology as tools for learning instead of tools for teaching. In many cases, waivers make it possible for some to enter the classroom with little or no professional training at all. (To be frank, with looming teacher shortages around the country, I don’t expect this will change a great deal in the near term.)

Second, it would mean that teachers are trusted. I heard that repeatedly during my visit, that there was a high degree of trust in teachers to do good work, which is why it’s rare for anyone to stick their head in during a lesson. Teachers don’t have to submit lesson plans. In fact, as my dropping in for a 30-minute Q&A with a Year 9 class showed, teachers have a great deal of flexibility around what happens on a day to day basis. Sure, content and curriculum need to be addressed, but teachers have a great deal of autonomy in how that happens.

Third, it allows for a culture of respect and responsibility between students and teachers. Students see their teachers as professionals, and for the most part, they treat them that way. However, students don’t see teachers as responsible for what they got on the test. They know that it’s their responsibility to prepare and to seek additional assistance and guidance if needed. If you told teachers that they would be evaluated based on how well their students scored on the test, I suspect they (and their students) would be mortified.

“Progress” in Finland is not motivated by a fear of poor evaluations. It’s motivated by a deep concern for what’s best for kids, and an emphasis on quality and, importantly, equality. “Progress” is something that is driven by the needs of students in a whole child sense, not driven almost solely by what can be measured in terms of student work. It’s almost rare in the U.S. to find a school that doesn’t measure its “progress” primarily on year over year improvement on “the measurable.”

I’m certainly not suggesting that teachers in the U.S. or elsewhere lack care and concern for their students. Nor am I suggesting that most teachers here aren’t smart or unprofessional in their classrooms. In fact, I find most of the teachers I meet extremely dedicated to the work, and I was tremendously impressed with the enthusiasm and passion that my son’s teachers displayed during my final (sniff?) back to school night last week. It was a great reminder of how powerful a passionate learner / teacher can be in a child’s life. And, by the way, I’m also not saying that regular evaluations can’t be a good thing. They can, dependent on the goals of the evaluation.

But imagine if we had cultures of respect for teachers as professionals, that we trusted them to do well by our kids. That we didn’t require regular lesson plans or surprise visits or detailed evaluations or ridiculous ways of “scoring” teacher effectiveness. That would be an interesting shock to this system, at least. And it may be a healthy one, at that.

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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