‘When will we ever learn’

Just back from an another international education conference – where international school heads came together to once again attempt to unpack the sticky issue of teacher evaluation.

And I just don’t get it. Did I miss something? How is it possible that we STILL debate whether or not student learning results should be included as pivotal data in determining the effectiveness of a teacher? How is it possible that a ‘profession’ would even remotely consider the idea that its bottom line (learning) would not factor in when examining the most essential ingredient (teachers) for its success?

We either accept the research of our own profession or we don’t – I see no middle ground. Every single study conducted that I have managed to get my hands on says the same thing: in the school context the quality of the teaching is the single biggest determinant for learning. Yet until today we have teachers and principals who are outraged that we would even THINK of looking at learning results when it comes to evaluating (or even just supervising) our skillful, PAID professionals. This is a profession, not a job. Professions have standards for their practitioners and those practitioners are held accountable to them – and the standards get raised as the profession’s own research brings new understandings to light.

Our standards in the education profession have been raised. All those research studies strongly indicate that teaching is the most critical factor in LEARNING. They have measured the effect of teaching on LEARNING not on how teachers behave professionally, or who they ‘collaborate’ with or how they plan units. We know unequivocally that what teachers do matters… and ‘mattering’ can only be revealed through examining the learning that each teacher’s kids achieve.

The major argument against using learning results as even a small part of a teacher’s evaluation data is well known. There are too many factors that affect learning that the teacher has no control over. It would just not be ‘fair’ to draw any conclusions about a teacher’s effectiveness and therefore professional next steps based on what the kids have learned. Better to just look at all the ‘inputs’ from the teacher and assume if he is doing all those things, then regardless of learning results, we will stamp him ‘effective’.

What kind of reasoning is that? We can’t have it both ways. The research is conclusive the teacher IS the most significant factor in learning. So it is completely fair and logical to use learning results as the primary indicator of teacher effectiveness– and shall I go out on a limb and say that it may actually border on UNETHICAL not to do so?
If, as many educators would like to claim, the learning results are too ‘contaminated’ by other inputs, rendering the teacher a small part of the learning of any given kid (not!), then why set up a system where teachers are the centerpiece of the school? Let’s disregard the research, dismantle that practice and turn our full attention to those ‘contaminating’ inputs that are causing learning results to be such unreliable indicators of teacher effectiveness. Shall I rant on?

Of course it is important to collect evidence of WHAT the teacher is doing – because those are the things that can be modified IF the learning results are not what they should be. And of course the tools used to collect evidence of learning need to be valid and reliable (and who makes those – yes, teachers). But relying solely on examining instructional and professional behaviors which SHOULD lead to learning WITHOUT looking at the learning results in tandem is somewhere on the continuum of completely stupid to downright damaging. No wonder teacher growth , appraisal, evaluation , supervision schemes – the whole lot – whatever you call them – have never worked and still don’t’. We are looking in the wrong places, driven by faulty assumptions. In the words of the late Pete Seeger, ‘When will we ever learn’?