School-wide data should not be used in teacher evaluations without collaboration

A baseball player doesn’t make as much if his team doesn’t do well, right? Should we pay a band’s drummer the big bucks if the band isn’t popular? Absolutely not. Even our representatives in Congress have their job stability linked to one another; if the party doesn’t do well, neither do individual members. For many people, there really is no “I” in team when it comes to pay and job security.

On first blush, tying individual performance to team performance makes perfect sense. After all, in organizations such as a baseball team, band, or political party, each member works together towards a common goal; therefore, whether or not the team achieved that goal should be considered.

Similarly, doesn’t it make sense to tie a teacher’s evaluation to the overall performance of the school? After all, teachers in one building should all be working towards a common goal—the learning of students. Why not encourage teamwork by tying teachers’ job security and pay to the performance of the school as a whole? In fact, that’s just what several states and big cities have done in their new teacher evaluation systems. Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, as well as the cities of Chicago and Pittsburgh, have made some portion of a teacher’s evaluation score tied to how well the school as a whole does on standardized tests or other indicators (such as graduation rates or promotion rates). While these states have good intentions in doing so, tying school-wide data to individual teachers’ evaluation is a bit like giving your child a cough drop for a fever. It’s the wrong medicine for the ailment.

Let me present another series of hypotheticals. Should a local eye doctor’s pay and job security be linked to the town’s ear and sinus health? Should one therapist be held accountable for the mental health of patients in his or her city who are not his or her own? Most of us would argue in these scenarios, the answer is no. What accounts for the difference?

The difference is that doctors and therapists are private practitioners. While their work contributes to a greater goal that many might work towards—the physical and mental health of a community—their job isn’t structured in a way that demands teamwork. For the most part, your eye doctor does not collaborate with, practice with, or learn with your ear doctor, foot doctor, or cardiologist. Likewise, while therapists may provide similar services with similar goals, for the most part, they do not collaborate together on a patient, practice with each other, or have mandated time together where they share practices to improve. These fields are by their nature more individualistic. We seem to demand consideration of team performance when the job itself is structured in such a way as to require collaboration. Baseball players practice together. Band members write music and perform together. Congressmen and women write bills together, discuss issues together, and compromise on laws together. Doctors and therapists in private practice do not have a job which requires collaboration, so they aren’t judged based on it.

It may surprise many Americans to find out that teaching mirrors more of the private practitioner structure than the team structure. When I first started teaching, I was certainly shocked by this as well. As a new teacher, I had envisioned meeting frequently with other teachers to share what was happening in our class or to discuss the best teaching strategies for a particular concept. The reality was quite different. Almost all of my day was taken up with teaching my classes, and in the short preparation period I had, I graded papers and planned my lessons alone. Even if I wanted to collaborate, it wouldn’t have been possible. Few teachers had off the same periods as I did, and those who did were busy planning and grading their own papers. I quickly realized that teaching was an exceptionally isolated job.

In his 1975 landmark study of the lives of American teachers, Dan Lortie deemed schools “egg crates,” where teachers worked close proximity to one another, but their work never touched, much like eggs in a crate.  Today, thirty-eight years later, not much has changed. A recent study found that teachers spend a whopping three percent of their day collaborating with colleagues. It’s not that teacher don’t want to collaborate; it’s that the structure of the school itself impedes it.  Work is done individually, and there’s no time carved into the school day for collaboration.

However, calls for evaluating teachers based on school-wide indicators of achievement seem to ignore the widely recognized truth that the teaching profession is structured as a field of private practitioners. States and districts plod on, arguing teachers lack incentives to work together, something remedied by inclusion of school-wide data in individual evaluations. This is a flawed premise supported by no research. What research does show is that teachers want time for collaboration with their colleagues and engage willingly and happily when given this time. The recent MetLife survey of American teachers found that collaboration contributes to teacher satisfaction.  These findings certainly don’t suggest that teachers are resistant to working with one another and are in need of incentives to do so. They do suggest that the school structure itself presents major impediments to a teamwork approach to learning in a school building, something that’s not remedied with a carrot and stick approach to evaluations, but which requires a structural revamp of a teacher’s day and work.

Furthermore, weighting school-wide data so heavily in teacher evaluations works to dilute the primary purpose of the Race to the Top brand of teacher evaluations—identifying the individual contribution of a teacher to student learning. In Tennessee, school-wide achievement data accounts for 35 percent of evaluations of teachers of non-tested subjects. But a report on the first year of the evaluation system suggested decreasing that percentage because teachers expressed that the data didn’t reflect their individual performance.

Before we jump to making teacher evaluations the cure all for everything wrong with public school education, we’d be wise to think deeply about what’s causing the problem we’re aiming to fix. That’s a more complicated question for some aspects of schooling. However, it’s not that complex when we ask ourselves why teachers aren’t collaborating towards greater student learning. Instead of firing teachers based on scores which aren’t their own, and for which they have no time within their school day to work towards improving, let’s think about breaking the egg crate to create a more effective school structure that’s less “I” and more “team.” Maybe then we can think about evaluating teachers based on school-wide scores. Until then, let’s stop giving a cough drop for a fever.   -Allison Gulamhussein

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