If you’re interested in education, I highly recommend Justin Baeder’s1 “On Performance” blog hosted over on Education Week.

Today, he ended his post with a question, “I would be very interested to learn of any other sector that has achieved substantial performance gains by reforming its evaluation processes. We’re putting a lot of eggs in the ‘improve teacher evaluation to improve student learning’ basket, but no one even seems to be asking whether this strategy has any merit.”

I think this is the write idea but the wrong question. What we should wonder is whether any other sector has achieved substantial performance gains by reforming its entire process for hiring, retaining, supporting, and terminating its employees when that sector started with an extremely rigid, non-differentiated structure. Teacher evaluation is about providing better professional growth opportunities targeted to an individual’s needs. It’s about rewarding folks who are doing a stellar job and making sure that you can reward mission-critical people who might otherwise leave for other opportunities. And, much to many union members’ chagrin, it’s also about providing substantial a substantial and trusted evidence base that principals can turn to justify termination decisions.

Ask your favorite policy professional or administrator why they are pushing for centralized, mandatory, and prescriptive forms of teacher evaluation. I can guarantee they’ll include the current lack of serious evaluation in schools. I would bet that most folks also are pushing for these policies as a proactive step to make sure they can win union-based challenges against performance-based terminations and reassignment. Because the teacher unions are so strong and are largely steadfast in their need to treat all teachers equally2, policymakers feel like they have to wrap evaluations in as much novel social science and standardization as possible so that they have even the tiniest chance in hell of holding up in court. To what extent can the lack of robust evaluation be connected to school leaders’ lack of self-efficacy for action on this information?

Teachers fear that a world without these protections would produce unfair evaluations and termination procedures that are subjective. Secretly, I bet that most policymakers would be totally comfortable not pushing hard for value-added models and overly specific observation rubrics. So long as they felt confident they could take action in response to the evaluations, the current evaluation hawks would instead be willing to leave much more to individual professional judgment3. If the primary relationship in a school building was professional, and not a unionized labor-management split, a lot of the current evaluation policy might not be necessary. In the very least, the policies could be less centralized. But ultimately, professionals are held accountable for their work quality by bosses that employees respect as professionals.

I’ll end with one final thought: I wonder what the teacher evaluation narrative would be like in an alternative history where there was no split between the teacher unions and professional organizations of education administrators and professors.

Important note: while I do work at a state department of education, I am not directly involved in nor am I intimately familiar with our teacher evaluation model or policies. As an employee of the Rhode Island Department of Education, I am also a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2012 union. The thoughts I’ve expressed in this post are entirely my own and does not represent the AFT or RIDE’s position.

  1. Per his EdWeek Bio, “Justin Baeder is a public school principal in Seattle and a doctoral student studying principal performance and productivity at the University of Washington. In this blog he aims to examine issues of performance, improvement, and the changing nature of the education profession.” ↩︎

  2. One day I’ll write about the irony of equality of treatment for education professionals. It’s strange that our thinking around funding has largely evolved from “equality” to “adequacy” but not our treatment of adults ↩︎

  3. Related important issue to solve– low principal quality undermines this possibility. One day I’ll write about my belief that the principal role is poorly designed and dooms most people to failure. Rethinking the building principal is a critical structural reform folks will be hearing more and more about ↩︎