Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Best Teacher Evaluation System I’ve Heard of!

Politicians and administrators struggle to find the best methods for the imprecise game of rating teacher effectiveness. Teachers and researchers know the truth. Garbage in = Garbage out. These teacher rating systems based on sub standard assessments, often without proper consideration of the number of ELL and special need students usually do nothing more than stress out teachers who’ve chosen to devote their career to educating students in challenging environments and reward those who work in less demanding settings. But what if we threw all these metrics and data analysis systems out the door and instead just let students and staff vote for who they want to have work at school? What an interesting paradigm shift for education. Let the clients (students) and your colleagues determine if you should come back each year. If teachers viewed students as clients whose vote they needed to keep their job, how might this effect the curriculum? If they needed their colleagues to like them too, because every vote counts, how might this change school culture?

If you’re thinking, yeah, that’s interesting, but it’s never gonna happen, you might be interested to learn that it is happening and in fact has been happening for over 40 years with the Sudbury school model of education where as research professor of psychology Peter Gray explains,
“no staff members at the school have tenure. All are on one-year contracts, which must be renewed each year through a secret-ballot election. As the student voters outnumber the staff by a factor of 20 to 1, the staff who survive this process and are re-elected year after year are those who are admired by the students. They are people who are kind, ethical, and competent, and who contribute significantly and positively to the school's environment. They are adults that the students may wish in some ways to emulate.”
I wonder how many public school teachers would choose this evaluation method over the one they have. Hmmmmm????

And, one other thing with the Sudbury education philosophy. They believe...
Adults do not control children's education; children educate themselves.
But that’s a topic for another post.


  1. Gosh, I'm so torn on this whole teacher accountability thing. As someone willing to work his posterior off, I'm all for merit pay. I'd love some more money. That said, I need a game I can win at—and that's not the case with the current state evaluation system. I might be willing to change my opinion if the powers-that-be rolled out a system that accurately measured something (anything), but I'm not optimistic that's going to happen anytime soon or that it's even possible in anyway that scales.

    Two years ago, I was a special education science teacher in Grade 8. My kids needed to take the state test. I never saw their scores but I was there proctoring the test and I'm confident they bombed it. The next day, I asked them some of the questions I saw them get wrong on the test. Lo and behold, they knew the answers. They failed the science test because they couldn't read the questions. Am I willing to stake my career on that test? Certainly not.

    At the end of the day, our students are our customers. A objection to the student voting system might be that it would more of a popularity contest than an accurate measure of their teaching ability.

    That's hogwash. Students respect "mean" teachers who get the job done and they don't respect "nice" teachers who are incompetent. This was true when I was a student and it's true when I talk to students now. Administrators see an individual staff member in action only a few hours a year. Students are there for the overwhelming majority of their day.

    As far as staff votes? Yep, you need to play nicely with the people you work with. It's the same as when we tell our students that sometimes they may have to work with people they don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with.

    The only thing I would add is that administrators should be held to the same standard and metric.

  2. @Steve Kinney, great insights and thank you for thinking this through even further on this post from your blog

    I do agree, btw about administrators, though with the particular school model I mentioned, I don't think there are traditional administrators. Instead, they have adult members of the community who provide a wide variety of services to their student clients.

  3. Hello, Lisa,

    I have a mildly more complete version over on my blog, but here is the gist of my post:

    A student voice in teacher evaluations would e a great thing. Really, creating more mechanisms for meaningful student involvement would be a great thing.

    But students aren't "clients" any more than teachers are "service providers." That type of pseudo-business language infests some of the conversation about education reform. Education is not a point of sale, and rhetoric suggesting otherwise simplifies the relationships that can and do exist between teacher and student.

    Students do educate themselves, but a teacher isn't just a piece of the furniture, or a salesperson. A good teacher - one attuned to the differing needs of students in their classrooms - knows how to reach individuals.

    While voting as one element of evaluation seems like an interesting idea, I'd rather see a system where students expressed themselves using actual words. Voting implies a pre-selected set of options that actually limit the range of their expression.

    And, of course, any evaluation system that has just a single facet is flawed by design.

  4. @Bill Fitzgerald, we'd certainly need to speak to the people at Sudbury to see their take on this, but since it's a system they've used for more than 40 years and it seems to be something they are proud of, I'm guessing it works well and it seems the teachers want to keep coming back if they're voted in.

    I'm not about a business model for ed, but I'm not sure thinking of students as clients or customers is wrong. Certainly, for me, we need to update the way students are currently viewed. Perhaps thinking of them as constituents makes more sense.

    Regarding your assertion that a system of voting is flawed, I find that interesting as that is how we end up with our elected officials. Why not simplify our assessment of teachers to using the same method as we do to measure politicians?

  5. I have a real problem with this one. I have watched students give really good teachers a difficult time because the teachers had high expectations. One group was so mean to a teacher that she quit. I taught next to her in an open concept so I know she was an excellent teacher. I have also had students say "I'm going to have you fired" when they got into trouble.

  6. @Betty, I think that if students dislike a teacher so much because of her expectations, maybe that teacher needs to rethink her approach. I think sometimes we forget that students own the learning. When students are empowered to direct their learning and explore their passions they have high expectations for themselves. Perhaps these students wanted more autonomy.

    Regarding your second issue, of "I'm going to have you fired." Yes, I have seen that. I worked in a challenging school in Harlem with some violent students and we were not allowed to restrain them when they attacked each other or destroyed property. They knew this as they acted this way if we tried to intervene threatening, if you touch me I'll get you fired. It was sad. The Sudbury model though seems to have a very interesting structure where a school council has rules set my all members of the school. Violators have a trial. It seems that sensible decisions are reached with this sort of democratic approach.

  7. Hello, Lisa,

    RE: "Regarding your assertion that a system of voting is flawed, I find that interesting as that is how we end up with our elected officials. Why not simplify our assessment of teachers to using the same method as we do to measure politicians?"

    Using our political officials/process as a model for efficiency is not something I'd advocate for. Education deserves better.

    RE: "we need to update the way students are currently viewed." - I'm in complete agreement. Viewing students as customers or clients is way too simple, and doesn't go far enough. Leaving aside the fact that the semantics are flawed, a true learning partnership should transcend or sidestep notions of servility.

  8. @Bill Fitzgerald, makes sense. Isn't it ironic though that politicians have one simple measure for assessment but (at least in NYC) have a hugely complex and flawed measure when it comes to education.

    I'm sure there's more to this model and would love to get the weigh in from students or staff from the school.

    That said, I'd love for you to share some links from your blog to your position on teacher assessment and view of students.

  9. Bill-
    "A good teacher - one attuned to the differing needs of students in their classrooms - knows how to reach individuals."
    I couldn't agree more! Bravo!
    Where a learning partnership is established, a one year contract, and an annual vote is not in the interests of either party. Relationships are not built on fear or threat, but on connection.

  10. @Dorothy Shapland, the very premise of the model is that when relationships and connections are built, students will want their teachers to return. I need to find a staff member from such a school to shed more light on the process.

  11. Holding teachers in one-year only contracts, however, does not engender confidence, acts as veiled threat, and demeans the profession.

    If students want to be confident that their teachers will not leave for more security in other fields, one would think they would offer long term contracts.

    Much like ball players, it is in both the team's interest, and the players interest to hold one another to a commitment.

    Yes, you run the risk that a great teacher will suddenly turn awful, or that a great player will suddenly be injured, but that should be mitigated by the benefits of knowing this teacher "belongs" to this school, and that the team can claim the player's prowess as their own.

    There are certainly benefits to a democratic evaluation, I just don't agree that beginning from the assumption that teachers serve at the pleasure of their students is the best way to elevate the profession and remove the flaws in the system.

  12. @Lisa -

    I have a few posts about assessment - this link collects up most of them:

    My most recent is at

    In general terms, I'm a strong advocate for portfolio-based assessment for both students and teachers. The accountability craze has also set back ideas around teacher professional development, as measures of a teacher's growth and ongoing education/development have been subsumed into what feels more like a defense of why teachers are needed. The teacher-bashing that permeates some educational "reform" conversations doesn't help things.

    RE: "politicians have one simple measure for assessment"

    Is it really a simple measure? Given the amount of fund raising/negotiating that most candidates need to do in order to mount a successful campaign, the simple act of voting seems to mask the underlying complexity that a candidate must navigate in order to be viable.

    But in any case, teachers shouldn't be compared to politicians. Teaching shouldn't be politicized.

  13. @Dorothy - re "Holding teachers in one-year only contracts, however, does not engender confidence, acts as veiled threat, and demeans the profession."

    Annual contracts are pretty standard within the independent school world.

    It sounds like Sudbury has a school culture that does a lot to inculcate community participation, which is an incredibly important subtext for how people's input helps shape their community.

  14. @Bill- I have worked under one-year only contracts for the majority of my career. I don't advocate for them as a means to improve the profession, however.

    For the reasons I state, I believe that a system of portfolio presentation to a panel of community, faculty, students and administration is a more authentic form of evaluation. And that contract clauses that allow for dismissal based on poor evaluations are fundamentally different from the assumption, implied in one-year only contracts, that teachers hired for a longer term will necessarily become poor teachers.

  15. @Bill, agree teaching "shouldn't" be politicized, but it soooo is. Understand about the complexities of what's behind the vote. I have a feeling similar complexities exist at Sudbury. Look forward to reading your links.

    On the issue of contracts, I've served under a one year contract for the last several years. I think it makes sense. I need to be seen as a valuable member by my employer and if that changes in either of our eyes, it's time to move on.

  16. Hmmmm... there is something both so wrong and so right with this idea for me. I just recently read another comment elsewhere stating something along the line of how if a doctor is doing an outdated procedure people stop going to him/her so it forces the doctor to keep up with the times.

    I do think there is something to letting students/parents choose their teacher and that it is not always about good teacher/bad teacher but more about matching learning and teaching styles or matching personalities. I'm not so sure about the voting. And because I like to throw out crazy ideas (and perhaps stir the pot a bit too)... What if teachers got paid per student - they could decide on how large they wanted their class to be (keeping in mind their paycheck would be smaller if they wanted a smaller class) and then the sign up process began. Reconfigue classes so you have a couple of grades together in each class to allow for more flexibilty in which teacher a student could choose. When the class is full the class is full. When you get down to the end and there are still kids to put in classes but those kids/parents would not choose the teacher that is left then its time to hire a new teacher and hope for the best (or talk to the teachers that those students/parents want to see if they will increase both their class size and their paycheck and take those kids). The teachers who got too few kids in their class to justify taking up valuable space could try again next year. The teachers who couldn't make a living off of it would soon quit.

    Its a bit cynical and harsh and would never be a reality but my point is that I think the question of would your students choose you as a teacher is a valid one.

  17. Did a little more investigating into how the system works which you can read at these two links:

    Additional information is that the parents are included in the vote and much like our political voting system it is more complex than just coming in one day to vote.

    Here is a description:
    The School Meeting has full operational authority to run the school, subject only to the policies set forth by the Assembly. The School Meeting does it all: it spends the money, hires (and fires) the staff, passes all the school rules (the permanent rules are codified in the School Meeting Law Book which can be obtained through the office), oversees discipline, and sets up all sorts of administrative entities to keep things running smoothly. It is presided over by the School Meeting Chairman who is effectively the school's Chief Executive Officer. In the early years, the Chairman was almost always a staff member, but since 1973 Chairpersons have been students. The School Meeting also elects a Secretary to keep records.

    To me this still sounds more sensible then other approaches I'm familiar with on a number of levels.

  18. I work for The Circle School, a Sudbury-like school, and we have largely moved away from direct elections, though the democratic School Meeting does control hiring and firing. Some of the concerns raised here about the drawbacks of year-to-year contracts were primary in our shift away from annual up or down votes. I don't know what the state of elections is at Sudbury Valley itself, but our program is very similar to theirs.

    That said, while I agree that student voices are vital to any teacher evaluation, I'm not sure that there's a direct correlation here between how it's done at Sudbury Valley School and the kind of evaluation you're talking about doing in a more traditional school. "Teachers" at SVS can be kids, teens, adults, paid, volunteer, etc. The adults at SVS (and The Circle School) are called "staff" and they are not responsible for setting curriculum or writing lesson plans or anything of the sort. They *are* responsible for making sure the school operates smoothly, for anchoring culture to value of interpersonal respect and trust, and for being available as friends and facilitators to the enrolled children and teens. I'm not sure the criteria for evaluation and the staff/student relationship are similar enough for the elections system to make sense outside of a context in which students aren't equals in other ways.

    Also, clarifying the above comment -- the School Meeting at SVS and The Circle School comprises staff and students, but NOT parents.

  19. At the Philadelphia Free School, our start-up group is sold. We're on track to open in the fall, and while we will have to have a core staff under contract for our initial year, everyone hired to be at the school will be directly accountable to the students. Not accessible, inspiring or dedicated? Good luck getting re-hired.

  20. @Robert L, thank you so much for dropping by and hopefully continuing in the conversation on my blog. I just love how you break it down. Simply put your want ad could look like this:
    "Accessible? Inspiring? Dedicated? Don't tell me. Prove it to our students.

    Hmmm...I think I have visions of a reality show where teachers do what they can to win the graces of their students. The winner gets a school funded. Could be interesting...

  21. I like this idea better than just looking at test scores and a couple evaluations by administrators. By getting the students and staff involved, you're able to get the opinion of the people that know best whether a certain teacher is doing a good job. This plan also evens out the playing field between teachers with AP and Honors courses and those with Special ed. and general kids.

    My only worry is that it may be giving the students too much power. There are many students out there who would vote against a good teacher because they gave him/her a hard time or called home with some bad news. I would hope it would even out with the rest of the class, but it could be a possibility.