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Bruno: What If Teacher Evaluation Isn't Actually Broken After All?

3180900835_80cc93f13e_nIndiana, like many other places, has recently attempted to "reform" its system of teacher evaluation on the assumption that under the status quo teachers are evaluated too generously.

And, like many other places, Indiana has discovered that even under aggressive reform the vast majority of teachers continue to be evaluated as "effective" or better, and few are deemed in need of improvement.

To understand why administrators might be reluctant to evaluate teachers more harshly it's helpful to look at the research on employee evaluation in other sectors, some of which economist Robin Hanson pointed to last week.

As those studies consistently demonstrate, "inflated" employee evaluations are the norm, even outside of education. And supervisors often have plausible reasons for evaluating so generously.

Even beyond the fact that they may consider their employees generally competent, supervisors may want evaluations to play many different roles. They can encourage or help reward employees, play roles in employee promotion and termination, and help insulate workers from factors outside of their control, all while having implications for social cohesion and overall morale.

Dismissing these considerations as "political" is potentially naive, as the effects of individual evaluations may have counterintuitive implications for the entire system's effectiveness. As one executive in one of the studies put it, "Accurately describing an employee’s performance is really not as important as generating ratings that keep things cooking."

Curiously, Hanson, like many education reformers, nevertheless leaps to the conclusion that highly-positive evaluations are, by themselves, proof of a "broken" system. Such an assumption, however, begs numerous questions about whether evaluations are truly inflated or whether generous evaluations can be optimal for the system as a whole.

The ubiquity of inflated employee evaluations is not, by itself, proof that such evaluations are desirable. It does, however, suggest a need for considerable humility when attempting evaluation reform in any sector, including education.

It takes a certain amount of hubris to assume that supervisors and administrators all across the country, in diverse sectors, are all so uniformly incompetent and ineffective when it comes to evaluating their employees.

So we should be cautious about proposing that school administrators evaluate their employees using standards that would be considered atypically-harsh in other sectors. - PB (@MrPABruno)(image source)

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It's worth noting that the reformers own evaluation system, VAM, when used in the way they wanted it to be used in a 7 state survey showed that about 98% of teachers were proficient or better. The reformers were aghast that their shiny new toy didn't confirm their pre-determined assumptions about the quality of the teaching force and in fact confirmed previous pre-VAM levels of competency. They found themselves in the curious position of having to reject their own system while advocating for it's expanded use. FAIL!

Education is different from other areas. Teacher evaluation is a very subjective and a complex topic and the system has been working like this from hundreds of years.

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