The Muddy Language of Teacher Evaluation


“We need high-quality teacher evaluation systems to make sure that every student is taught by a quality teacher.” 

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We see statements like this everywhere in education reform, and they’re worded in such a way that it’s hard to disagree with them.  Do you want to make sure every student has a quality teacher?  Of course, who doesn’t?  To do this, you need a way to gauge teacher quality, right?  Sure.

But there’s something else going on here.  Something that gets blurred by the vague language of the statement.  Something that has to do with the mechanism behind “making sure that…”

When we evaluate something (our dietary habits, for example, or a car we’re considering buying, or a teacher’s practice), it’s helpful to figure out whether we’re seeking information in order to improve the thing (“formative evaluation”) or decide whether to keep or reject the thing (“summative evaluation”).

Presumably, when we evaluate our eating habits, we have no intention of stopping eating; rather, we want to see what’s going on, what’s working, what’s not working, what we can change.  That is, we’re carrying out a “formative evaluation.”  But when we go car shopping, we’re looking to make a decision, a definitive, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down decision; we’re engaged in “summative evaluation.”

What about when we evaluate teachers?  Clearly, we need to evaluate for both of these purposes.  Teachers need information about their practice so that they can reflect on it and improve.  And administrators need information about the quality of work their employees are engaged in, in order to make personnel decisions.

Formative teacher evaluation makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside.  We picture dedicated, reflective teachers, studying their craft, honing their skills, becoming the best that they can possibly be and raising up their students in the process.  And summative teacher evaluation is, honestly, a little awkward.  Because, let’s face it, it amounts to firing people.

The clever double-speak that we sensed in the opening quote (which nearly everyone, from every corner of the reform debate, is patently guilty of) is this: there is no acknowledgement of the difference between formative and summative teacher evaluation.  All too often, ambiguous language masks the very real question: How exactly we are going to make sure that every student has a quality teacher?

By improving our existing teaching force?  Or by “firing our way to the top,” as Mr. Duncan so delightfully put it?  The solution is, of course, that we need both formative and summative teacher evaluation.  But unless we recognize that both exist, unless we get behind the blurry language and articulate this distinction, we risk derailing potentially productive policy conversations and descending into sound-bite-ridden shouting matches.  That’s a reform strategy, I think we can agree, goes absolutely nowhere.



One thought on “The Muddy Language of Teacher Evaluation

  1. Well put, gtobiason, well put! I feel like the sound bitey nature of these conversations ends up creating artificial camps of “teachers are the problem – they don’t have students’ interests at heart and can’t maintain their own standards” and “teachers are the solution – they know better than policy-makers, so hands-off.” This polarization obscures a more complicated picture and raises hackles on all sides. Like many things in life, I think the best options lie somewhere in the middle, and we need more voices of moderation who can cultivate a healthy debate, rather than a debilitating one.

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