Do We Really Know How To Evaluate Teaching?

There are various ways through which teachers are often gauged. First, tests on both content and pedagogical knowledge can be administered. Second, student scores on standardized exams can be utilized. And third, teachers can be observed while they are teaching in their classrooms. In the United States where student achievement is often incorrectly equated to teacher effectiveness, considerable time and effort have been devoted to teacher evaluation. This is challenging especially in the early grades of basic education since standardized testing does not normally begin until the later elementary years. In kindergarten and the early years of elementary school, the subjects taught do not have that much depth and breadth for teachers' exams to be meaningful. Thus, observing teachers in their classrooms has become the widespread method of evaluating teachers in the early grades. The Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in finding the best teacher evaluation practices. Such is an example of a policy taken without considering first evidence-based research. A recent study shows that the most widely used method in the United States for teaching evaluation, the Framework for Teaching (FFT) measure, is not correlated with neither student learning outcomes nor motivation.

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This finding should not be surprising for two reasons. Measures of an instructor's performance obviously depends on what we regard as effective teaching. This already assumes that we know what effective teaching looks like in the early years. FFT, for instance, values the following: (1) the ability to foster an environment of respect, (2) the ability to instill a culture for learning, (3) the ability to manage the classroom and how students behave, (4) the ability to communicate with students, (5) the ability to raise questions and facilitate discussion, (6) the ability to engage students, and (7) the ability to use assessment in instruction. These are the criteria used and as the study illustrates, a kindergarten classroom does not really provide teachers enough opportunity to obtain high scores in some of these measures. Phonics instruction as well as arithmetic drills do not help a teacher score high in this evaluation, yet these practices are known to be effective in the early years. A second reason is the fact that student's achievement in the early grades in the United States is strongly correlated with the student's race and socio-economic status.

Worth noting is that this lack of relationship between learning outcomes and teacher evaluation in the early years of basic education has long been established decades ago by research. And with all the changes in the classroom that have happened since, introduction of technology and extensive modification of the curriculum, the same relationship holds. Observing teachers inside their classrooms requires a significant amount of resources. These resources can be used instead for other activities that are already proven to be beneficial: preschool education and after-school activities. More importantly, it is clearly wrong to use a measure that does not correlate with student achievement in rewarding or punishing our teachers.