Evaluating teachers is a waste of time

Sunday, August 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:25 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
John Merrill, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, has written and taught around the world and here in Columbia for more than 50 years.

Teacher reviews in the various states seems to be a big issue these days. Here in Missouri teachers must spend a five-year probationary period before they get job security. In Nebraska it’s only one year. Why such a discrepancy? And why the need for teacher reviews at all?

Recently the National Council on Teacher Quality reported that today’s state laws are part of a system of broken and counterproductive policies needing reform. The group came out with the usual and obvious conclusion: The way teachers are evaluated, prepared, licensed and compensated affect teaching quality. All right: Let’s evaluate them better than we do. Will that make them better teachers? The council says yes.

Train them better? Maybe it would be more important to “educate” them better.

License them better? Maybe they need to be licensed at the time they are evaluated. Pay them more — and more fairly? Pay does not a good teacher make, but merit does need to be brought to play in teacher compensation. Years of service means little. In fact, in many cases new teachers are better than they will be when they’ve been at it 20 or 30 years.

About a quarter of the states insist on yearly teacher evaluations. Only Missouri, Hawaii and Tennessee permit teachers to go for five years without a review. Some so-called experts say that is unwise. Some say this and others say that. Some of these experts think five years is reasonable because principals are simply too busy to review every teacher annually.

Maybe principals should be reviewed more often (or at all) by the teachers. Maybe the reviewing system itself should be reviewed. Maybe if principals and other reviewers are so good at knowing who is a good teacher, they should quit their jobs and get back into the teaching business.

Stop a minute and ask yourself how you would appraise the teaching ability of a teacher. Would it be based on the learning success of the students? Would it be on the teacher’s knowledge of the subject matter? Would it be on the teacher’s classroom demeanor? Would it be on how the teacher works with other teachers? Would it be on the appraisal of the teacher by the students? Would it be by visits to the teacher’s classroom by the principal or other evaluators? Would it be by the opinion of the teacher by colleagues? Just how would (or should) a teacher be evaluated?

Such questions have been debated and discussed for decades. Nobody really seems to know. But there seems to be a perceived need for teacher evaluation. But anyone who has been a student, and has matured intellectually, knows that several things: (1) good teaching is not good showmanship, (2) good teaching is not having a good personality, (3) good teaching is not forcing memorization, (4) good teaching is not giving difficult exams, (5) good teaching is not tolerating and even praising mediocre work.

And most principals (and other teachers) know who the good teachers are. They are the ones who work hard, who love their work and respect their students, who read widely and deeply, who make their students think, who treat all students equally, who are articulate and clear but not glib, and who are willing to talk with students out of class.

Students, also, know who the good teachers are. It is, however, probably best to get them to do their evaluations some four or five years after they have graduated. They will then have the maturity and the perspective to sort out the poor, the mediocre and the excellent teachers.

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