Overthinking Evaluation

In yesterday’s Kansas City Star, Joe Robertson outlines various concerns about teacher evaluation proposals that include student performance as a factor. The most widespread of these, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that these “value-added” models include too many variables outside of the teacher’s control to be fair. And this is a problem: in the words of KC teachers’ union president Andrea Flinders, this type of system “will do nothing to attract teachers and it will drive good people away.”

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this proposal; I’m far from an expert on the underlying calculations. But this case exemplifies the absurd overthinking which mars discussions of teacher evaluations.

The reality is that no method of evaluating employees in any industry is perfectly fair or foolproof. Yet only in education is the concern about “driving away” potential employees so prevalent. A person is hired for a job. They are given  various tasks and assignments to complete and asked to meet various expectations  of comportment and professionalism in the office. If they meet those expectations, they will remain employed; if they don’t, they will get fired.

Of course, it is often not that simple. Evaluating work performance can be complicated, especially in fields like sales where there are plenty of variables outside of the employee’s control. There can be incompetent supervisors that play favorites or are otherwise arbitrary in their hiring and firing decisions. Yet the system goes on. There is an understanding that, for companies to be successful, they want the best people working there. Supervisors that don’t follow that principle rarely remain supervisors for very long.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be sufficient for teachers. The rhetoric on teacher evaluation rests on the assumption that teachers have rights to their jobs, and that right can only be taken away when they have been objectively proven to be ineffective. As I’ve written previously, if we demand different treatment than other professionals in the workforce, we shouldn’t be surprised by a negative reputation and lack of respect. Will a system of performance evaluation lead to some questionable firing decisions? Sure. But if the system is reasonably and logically designed, in the aggregate it should improve the quality of employees overall. And if that is good enough for other professionals, it should be good enough for us.


6 thoughts on “Overthinking Evaluation

  1. CarolineSF

    But the system isn’t reasonably or logically designed if it evaluates teachers based on factors beyond their control. The margin of error of value-added is enormous, and that’s not reasonable or logical either.

    Not only that, it’s not skeptical to accept unquestioningly the faddish education “reform” policies promoted by the mighty think tanks, by political leaders to whose contributors “reform” support is a litmus test, and by the mainstream media. That’s not skeptical; it’s gullible. Supporters of “reform” fads like evaluating teachers based on value-added measures are simply buying into the hype coming from the think tanks’ PR shops. The skeptics are those of us who challenge fads and propaganda from the powerful, not those who accept and parrot them unquestioningly. You need to change your blog’s name.

  2. Jacob W Post author


    I disagree. Teachers are hired by the taxpayers to educate kids. It is absolutely logical, then, that teachers would be evaluated on how well the kids are learning. Yes, student achievement is not 100% under teacher control, which is why evaluation ought to include other factors (observations, general professionalism/competence, that sort of thing). Besides, as I mentioned, people in many industries are evaluated on factors that are not completely under their control–think salesmen, for instance. I don’t see why teachers should get special treatment.

    Sorry you don’t like the name of my blog–perhaps we’re skeptical of different things. Personally, I’m skeptical of the public education establishment’s claim that they act in the interests of children over adults while they defend a system that fails kids; furthermore, they respond to reformers with conspiracy theories and name-calling instead of a genuine desire to collaborate . But we can agree to disagree.

    Thanks for reading,

    1. CarolineSF

      It would be akin to evaluating you based on your blog page views, Jacob W — how’s that for a comparison? You have some limited control, but there are a lot of other factors, far outweighing the control you have. It’s not sound, logical or rational to evaluate you on that basis.

      I would like the name of your blog just fine if it fit you, but it doesn’t. Based on your post on this topic, you’re a gullible trend-follower, a slave to political/policy fashion accepting propaganda from the powerful and wealthy, joining in the vogueish fad of teacher-bashing and public-education-bashing — not a skeptic or an independent thinker. If you believe that skepticism is admirable, try practicing it — otherwise you may need to re-evaluate your self-image and recognize that a skeptic is simply not what you are.

      1. Jacob W Post author

        My blog page views sounds like a great way to evaluate my Internet influence–presumably that’s what you are implying. (There aren’t very many, by the way.)

        I find it pretty ironic, by the way, that you argue for reasonable evaluation in the same sentence that you analyze and then discredit my integrity and character despite only knowing me through a few paragraphs I wrote on the Internet. But hey, what do I know–I’m just a “gullible trend-follower” and “slave to political/policy fashion.”

      2. CarolineSF

        It’s not a character flaw or lapse in integrity to be a trend-follower who is susceptible to PR from the powerful. It’s quite possible to be a trend-follower of outstanding character and integrity, and that may well describe you.

        It just is not skepticism; it’s the opposite. So I’m not discrediting your character or integrity; just your self-image as a skeptic. You’re not a skeptic, period. Dispense with that notion.

  3. Duane Swacker

    “If they meet those expectations, they will remain employed; if they don’t, they will get fired.” Let’s see, Back in the early 90’s I went in to my boss for my annual review. He told me I had done such a good job setting up the customer service system and changing customers perceptions for that 6 store furniture company that he was bringing in our delivery scheduler for $10,000 less per year and gave me two weeks notice. Yep, meet expectations, get fired. I did collect all the unemployment that I could just so the company would have to pay more. The good part of it was that I then went back and finished up my teaching degree and started teaching, which is the best job I’ve ever had.


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