What’s the Purpose of Teacher Evaluations?

Samantha James

Samantha James

May 7, 2021

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Having experienced and highly qualified teachers is important for educational outcomes. Teacher quality has a significant effect on educational outcomes, even when considering other factors such as poverty, class size, family situation, and funding issues. Teacher evaluation has become a way to ensure that educators are meeting state or district standards of education and student attainment.

However, evaluating teachers is an imperfect task and is a difficult problem we have been dealing with for decades. It is important to get to the root of teacher evaluations—to answer why we evaluate teachers and how we can effectively implement evaluation systems to better serve teachers and student populations.

To start, evaluation is at its core a kind of judgment or assessment of something, whether it’s a behavior, process, or even something like a law or policy. Evaluations are based on key categories related to questions that evaluators want answered. The results of these evaluative processes are meant to inform future decisions.

The main purpose of teacher evaluations is to enhance teachers’ pedagogical skills with the goal of improving student achievement. Teacher evaluations are not necessarily meant to serve a punitive function, but they can often feel that way to both educators and administrators. Given the very personal nature of the practice of teaching, many instructors feel like critical evaluation is a slight against them as a person, which means that evaluations can be a major cause of stress in their job. Primary to an effective formulation of teacher evaluation standards is to focus on providing necessary critical feedback.

Another major purpose of teacher evaluations is that they are positively linked to student learning. Factors such as education/experience, mastery of instructional techniques, collaboration with colleagues, and participation in professional development are all considered in the modern understanding of teacher quality.

Teacher evaluations also serve the purpose of accountability. Aside from raising strict educator quality, teacher evaluations contribute to building trust among colleagues and administrators, preparing programs, and professional development. IN a sense, a teacher evaluation is a way that educators can have a tangible goal to reach towards and clearly defined steps they can take to improve their performance. Many people think that teacher evaluations are as simple as sitting in a classroom and describing what you saw. This is not true though. Evaluations are about putting teacher conduct and performance in context with a set of standards. To that end, a large part of the evaluation process is set around finding methods for teacher improvement.

This reality of teacher evaluations is often misunderstood by the public. Since the start of nationalized teacher evaluations, the public has been dismayed by the seeming inability of teacher evaluations to punish bad teachers and remove them from the profession. This focus on teacher evaluations has dominated the public narrative surrounding them despite the fact that modern teacher evaluations have moved on from a simple binary model of hiring/firing teachers.

How Did Teacher Evaluation Systems Emerge?

Teacher evaluation systems have been around as long as the country’s public school system. Originally, teacher evaluations were mostly focused on whether teachers were following a specific curriculum and doing what was expected of them and not focused on individual student achievement. This initial focus was a reflection of the community-based nature of early public schools.

As public schooling underwent a shift to a more administrative model of organization, so did change the focus of teacher evaluations. At this point, districts and administrators began to adopt observational models of teacher feedback. This new form of teacher evaluation was furthered by the increasing urbanization and immigration boom during the m20th century. The increased administrative overhead, expanded bureaucratic apparatus in schools, and shift to preparing students to enter the workforce saw a change in how teacher evaluations were handled.

In the modern-day, teacher evaluation is focused on instructional improvement and student achievement, rather than punishing bad employees. However, several critics of modern teaching evaluation practices claim that it focuses too much on an economic and corporate-based style of management and does not take into account the individualities and nuances with individual student achievement.

What Challenges Do Teacher Evaluations Face?

Teacher evaluations are a continual source of controversy in the public sphere, and pit teachers’ unions, administrators, and the general public against each other. One of the largest issues concerning the future of teacher evaluations is the validity of the practice. It is thought that the relatively infrequent nature of teacher evaluations leaves administrators blind as to what is occurring in the classroom the majority of the time. This feature has led many to suspect that evaluations are not effective at improving teaching standards and do not provide effective and actionable feedback.

Another challenge facing teaching evaluations is building trust between administrators and teachers. Very often evaluations are a source of conflict between unions and administrators, especially when contract negotiations are taking place.

Lastly, a major challenge facing teaching evaluations is the lack of meaningful and actionable feedback. In some districts, nearly all teachers are rated as effective or satisfactory, which is unlikely assuming that objective teacher evaluation methods are being used. Few teachers are also dismissed for poor evaluations, which, while dismissal is not the point of teacher evaluations, still signals that many administrators do not provide legitimate feedback to teachers they evaluate.

It is important that school leaders understand the purpose of teacher evaluations so they can better understand how to integrate them into practice. Evaluations should be understood with the purpose of comprehensive coordinated approaches to improving teacher quality and student outcomes. School leaders also need to focus on the collaborative nature of the teaching practice and stress the importance of building these kinds of relationships between colleagues and teachers/administrators.

Despite reservations about the practice, teacher evaluations are an integral part of our educational apparatus. Ensuring that we have quality teachers to promote good student outcomes involves reaching deep to answer questions about what effective teaching is and how best to achieve that through structured observation.