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Cross-posted from Education Week

One of many blogs I read starts off by saying, “Many states have recently adopted new, more comprehensive teacher evaluation requirements. These new requirements promise to raise teacher accountability and performance.”

Promise?  Really?  Have you seen any evidence that the implementation of teacher evaluation systems at the scale of a school or school system produces statistically significant improvements in student performance?  No?  I haven’t either.

But, I can hear you saying, it is obvious that the implementation of sound teacher evaluation systems will produce greater accountability and it is no less obvious that improved accountability will produce better outcomes for students.  Or is it?

Let’s take accountability first.  For the sake of the argument, let’s predicate that there are two kinds of accountability: accountability in blue collar, Tayloristic systems and accountability in professional organizations.  In the first, you might be an autoworker.  You get paid by the hour.  If you beat your brains out and produce 50 widgets an hour, when most of others on the line are producing 35, one of your buddies takes you aside and tells you to knock it off.  You need to produce enough so that the others in the line don’t have to make up for your lack of contribution, but not so much that you make them look bad.  A lot of schools work like that.

Now look at a professional organization.  Unlike the school, there is typically a career structure.  In a law firm, for example, associates have the opportunity to work up to partner and then maybe to managing partner.  You work like a dog as an associate, hoping to eventually make partner.  While the associates are typically paid pretty much the same thing, what you get paid as you move up the ladder is a function of your ability to bring in clients, or your ability to win cases, if you are a trial attorney, or to provide the kind of advice that clients value highly.  Those judgments are mainly made by your professional colleagues.  When you slack off, you are not just letting the boss down; you are letting your professional colleagues down.  Do enough of that and you will get fired. Do a super job, day in and day out, and your colleagues will be happy to see that you are paid more, because they see the results of your work in their paychecks and in the reputation of the firm and its ability to attract high roller clients.  You see very few schools like that.  The way schools are organized, there are few if any opportunities for teachers to remain in teaching and move up any sort of career ladder.  Their professional colleagues don’t depend on them to do their jobs at a high level of competence.  Nor do their professional colleagues formally judge their performance.  There is almost nothing in the typical school organization that reminds this observer of a true professional work environment.

One of the accountability systems I just described elicits hard work and constant efforts by the individual to improve their own performance.  The other—the typical school—effectively provides very little incentive to improve performance.

So getting performance reviews per se, I submit, will in the most obvious sense make you more accountable, but there is no guarantee at all that it will improve your performance or induce you to work harder or to put real effort into improving your ability to do your job.  That is especially true if you don’t trust the measures that are being used to evaluate your performance or the people who are doing it, which, I submit, is true of most of the teachers now being evaluated under the new much-heralded systems.

It is important to remember why teacher performance reviews have been a sham for so long.  Principals knew that it would be very difficult, sometimes painful, and not infrequently expensive to get rid of teachers who showed up for work drunk and even harder to get rid of teachers whose performance was poor.  They also knew that it could be very difficult to get a teacher who was much better than the poor performer.  So they made the sensible decision that they should put their priorities elsewhere.  In those circumstances, it made little sense to deliver a scathing performance review.  All that would do is either lower the morale of the individual with no countervailing benefit or make a new enemy for the principal on the staff of the school, with incalculable consequences for the good order of the school.  Better to leave well enough alone.  Performance reviews made no difference in compensation or advancement.  So what was the point of delivering an adverse review?  Did we fix all that?  If so, I missed it.

But it probably doesn’t matter.  I know of no successful system for managing professionals anywhere in the world that relies for its success mainly on getting rid of poor performers to meet its quality targets.   Instead, the entire system is designed to make sure that high quality people are hired from the start and the best of them are promoted to positions of increasing responsibility right up to the top of the organization.

But the American education system does virtually nothing to build a high quality pool of people for our teachers colleges to choose among.  We do a famously poor job of educating and training future teachers.  We put almost no effort into recruiting first-rate people into our schools once they are trained.  We put pathetically little effort into supporting them once they are hired.  And then we pretend that we can fix all of these cardinal errors by evaluating the teachers we have hired.  That is absurd.  Quality cannot be tacked on at the end.

There is a role for teacher evaluation in a sound teacher quality management system, but it is a modest role.  The drivers are clear: create a first rate pool from which to select teachers by making teaching a very attractive professional career choice, provide future teachers the kind and quality of education and training we provide our high status professionals, provide teachers a workplace that looks a lot more like a professional practice than the old-style Ford factory, reward our teachers for engaging in the disciplined improvement of their practice for their entire professional careers, and provide the support and trust they will then deserve every step of the way.