One of the biggest, if not the biggest, controversy in education in the US is about standardized testing. And specifically, using standardized testing to evaluate K-12 teachers. Intelligent people, whether supporters or detractors, generally agree that good teaching can be much more than just getting a student to pass a certain standardized test. At the same time, there needs to be a method of evaluating whether teachers are doing a good job.
Where does my teaching experience put me? My students, being post-secondary, don’t generally have to take mandated standardized tests. So I don’t have direct experience with this form of evaluation. But I do have experience with some aspects of “automated” teacher evaluation, which may be generalizable.
I am someone who, temperamentally, can easily fall prey to a kind of wishywashy appeal of stuff like “inspiring” teachers. I’m inclined to romanticize non-quantifiable things, and I know this about myself. I am also a scientist by training. Therefore, I try to be doubly wary of any argument against using quantifiable data.
At the same time, my experience in seeing some evaluation metrics for teachers gives me pause. Of course, you evaluate what’s quantifiable. You evaluate what’s quantifiable because that’s what you can evaluate. But being quantifiable in itself doesn’t guarantee that something is meaningful. And a meaningless number, if it is used to justify important decisions, can be worse than no number at all.
And often, when evaluating teachers, administration uses metrics that don’t seem meaningful to me.
For instance, it is generally agreed that an important principle of good teaching practice is to match your evaluations, what you teach, and what you want the students to learn. This seems to me obviously a good idea.
Part of what is necessary for this matching to happen is to make sure the things you want the students to learn are tangible skills and actions. Because it’s only tangible skills and actions that can be well evaluated. You can’t test the students on whether they “understand Gauss’ Law” for example, but you can test whether they can “apply Gauss’ Law to determine the electric field inside an insulating sphere”. So it’s important that the learning outcomes (what you want students to get out of taking a course) are things you can test.
My school wants to make sure that this is the case for our classes. The idea behind it is sensible. But the method for ensuring this is not, in my opinion. They look to the syllabus for what the listed learning outcomes are for the course. And they count what proportion of learning outcomes have “action” verbs. And if it’s not 100%, they write you an e-mail, telling you to change the syllabus so that it’s 100%.
(And then another e-mail. And then there are several meetings. etc…)
But judging how well your teaching matches your evaluation by the proportion of action verbs in your syllabus is worse than useless. It’s actively bad. I don’t know how much of standardized teacher evaluation is doing something of this kind. But I worry that at least some is.
At the same time, what is clear to me is that teacher evaluation is necessary. My suggestion is that it be done by peers sitting in and giving feedback on each others’ classes. This is of course imperfect, imprecise, and prone to gaming of the system. But I think it’s the least bad method we’ve got.