When we feel stressed or threatened, we automatically downshift to survival. One sure-fire way to increase stress is to create an environment where people believe they have reduced control. Stress significantly decreases creativity. Instead, we focus on survival, on getting through this moment. As Nancy Buck stated in a recent article: “We are either closed for protection or open for growth and learning.” Stress leaves us “closed” and nothing could be less helpful than “closed” teachers when it comes to improving our schools.
According to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, at least 23 states now use student performance in evaluating teacher effectiveness. In fact, 14 allow the use of this data to dismiss teachers who have been deemed ineffective. Given today’s climate, I don’t expect that number to drop. If anything, it will likely rise. What happens when we judge teachers by how well their students perform?
Regardless of the intent of such practices, one guaranteed result is that all teachers will experience increased stress. This includes highly competent teachers, not simply those who might be ineffective. Right or wrong, teachers will claim that evaluation systems linked to student performance are inherently flawed. They will suggest that learning is not linear and that effective teaching doesn’t always immediately lead to improved test scores. They will question if higher test scores on standardized tests even proves students are learning more. Even if students are learning more, teachers will ask if the learning quantified on a standardized test is more important than what might be less measurable. They will argue that some students come from more challenging environments and that it is unfair to expect all teachers to have equal success. They will insist that “value added” systems are flawed, citing research to support their claims. (Take this quotation from “Challenges of Value-Added Assessment,” published in the esteemed journal Educational Leadership, for example: “As it currently stands, no empirical research validates the claim that value-added models accurately identify the most effective teachers. The many anecdotal claims have not yet been verified through experimental research.”)
Collectively, these arguments will further convince teachers that they have little control and are victims of an unfair system.
Such perceptions inevitably result in teachers abandoning the very creativity we need if we are to improve education. Teachers who feel attacked, stressed, and with little control are ill-equipped to do the job we need them to do. Rather than remaining open for growth and learning, teachers will be “closed” and less effective.
It makes no sense to argue that the teachers’ perceptions are “wrong.” When it comes to perception, there is no “wrong.” If I perceive it to be true, then it is true – at least for me – until I develop a different perception. For all intents and purposes, perception is reality.
The current attempt to revamp teacher evaluation emphasizing student test results on standardized tests is a recipe for disaster. Implementing a process that leaves teachers feeling victimized and stressed will only bring us further from the goal of a quality education for every child. I willingly acknowledge that there are some teachers who are not doing a good job. Undoubtedly, many of them have students who score poorly on standardized tests. Dismissing teachers whose students do poorly on standardized tests will get rid of some underperforming teachers. But at this point, the way these approaches are conceptualized, I am convinced it will do more harm than good. There are significantly more effective teachers who will be negatively impacted by this well-intentioned but flawed attempt to improve teacher evaluation than there are ineffective teachers who will be “weeded out.” These teachers will downshift to survival, will be afraid to take risks and be creative, and will be far less committed to the goal of giving each child what they need. The all-consuming drive to boost test scores will trump their capacity to continually discriminate and determine what each child needs most at any given time.
Human beings are driven to be autonomous and self-governing. When teachers believe their freedom has been abridged and they are victims of an poorly designed system of evaluation, they will do enough to keep their jobs but they will never give their heart and soul to a profession that needs total commitment from its teachers. The number of teachers whose performance will suffer will far outweigh any potential gains by eliminating ineffective teachers. It may seem strange to say, but we can accommodate a few ineffective teachers much more comfortably than we can tolerate having a significant percentage of our teachers feeling victimized, alienated, and disrespected. I don’t say this to “protect” ineffective teachers. I say this to protect the majority of effective, skilled teachers whose performance will be negatively impacted by a system replete with stress. I say this to advocate for students who will suffer because the performance of their teachers has been compromised by stress. I say this because it’s a bad idea.
Physicians are driven by the adage “do no harm.” Those who seek to reform how we evaluate teachers should adopt the same mantra. What we are doing now will undoubtedly cause much more harm than good – to teachers and to students.
What we need is a system of teacher evaluation that is free of fear. Teachers value feedback that helps them improve instruction. Teachers want to be successful and want their students to learn as much as possible. Teachers deserve a well-devised, collaborative system of feedback that enhances instructional practices, not one that is guaranteed to increase stress, dampen creativity, and hinder professional growth and development. In an upcoming article, you will read about an alternative approach to evaluation that will reduce stress and improve teacher effectiveness.