At mid-nineteenth century, public schools were under attack by the Catholic church; Bishop John Hughes “described the public schools as a ‘dragon…devouring the hope of the country as well as religion'” (Jacoby, pp. 257-258). Throughout the twentieth century, the political and public messages were about the same: public education was a failure.

Ironically, the rhetorical math has never added up: U.S. prosperity and international competitiveness depend on world-class public schools + U.S. public schools are failures = the U.S. dominates the world economically and/or “U.S.A. is number 1!”

As the school accountability era began in the early 1980s, the “public school as failure” mantra began to focus on low-performing schools and underachievement by students—as the early wave of accountability focused primarily on schools (including school report cards for the public) and exit exams as well as increased high-stakes testing for students.

The twenty-first century has added to the accountability target a new focus on the “bad” teacher. As a result, teachers; educational historians, scholars, and researchers; and public school advocates have been forced into a corner, reduced to nearly a monolithic reactionary voice of rebuttal.

That position of reaction has drawn fire—charges of inappropriate tone, defense of the status quo, masked self-interest, and a failure to offer alternatives.

That last point is important, especially in the debate over teacher evaluation that has seen a rise in value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation and a resurgence in merit pay policies despite both practices being at least tempered if not refuted by a growing body of research.

Peter Smagorinsky’s “Authentic Teacher Evaluation: A Two-Tiered Proposal for Formative and Summative Assessment” (English Education, 46(2), 165-185) offers an important place to acknowledge that the field of education, in fact, has numerous evidence-based alternatives to the reform agenda and highlight the reasons why those alternatives remain mostly absent from the public debate.

First, I highly recommend reading Smagorinsky’s entire piece, but that raises an important aspect about why evidence-based reform policies coming from educators, scholars, and researchers tend to carry little weight in the political and public debate about schools: high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarly work tends to be inaccessible except to fellow researchers and subscribers to relatively obscure journals.

Thus—as Smagorinsky notes himself in this essay about his increased public work as an academic—I want to touch on some of the most important points offered as an authentic alternative to teacher evaluation below.

Teacher Evaluation, Much More than What We Can Measure

Smagorinsky begins by noting the inherent failure of focusing heavily on measurable teaching and learning, an argument well supported by research but which appears to fall on deaf ears among politicians and the public.

Key in his proposal is refuting a false narrative, notably coming from Eric Hanushek, that teachers reject being held accountable. This is a powerful and important point that must be clearly understood.

The current approach to accountability in education includes holding teachers responsible for external mandates and teaching conditions that they have not created as well as measurable outcomes (student scores on high-stakes standardized tests) that are mostly out of their control (teacher impact on measurable student outcomes is about 10%, dwarfed by the influence of out-of-school factors, between about 60-80%).

As Smagorinsky notes, educators are rejecting that flawed approach to accountability and calling instead for professional accountability, which begins with teacher autonomy and includes holding teachers accountable for only that over which they have control (which is not measurable student outcomes).

If teacher evaluation policies, he explains, focused more on the conditions of teaching and learning—increasing the likelihood that both teachers and students can succeed—and less on punitive practices (such as firing the bottom X% based on VAM rankings, as Hanushek and Bill Gates have proposed), many of the goals for improved teacher quality and student achievement could be met.

Another key shift suggested by Smagorinsky is lessening significantly the amount of high-stakes testing (every 3-5 years, for example) included in teacher evaluations both as a recognition of the inordinate cost associated with testing (we rarely note that fully implemented VAM-like teacher evaluations would require pre-/post-tests of every student in every class taught in order to be fair and consistent among all teachers) and of the validity and reliability concerns that remain for VAM-based evaluations. This is a similar compromise to the one offered by Stephen Krashen, who has argued for not implementing Common Core and the so-called next-generation high-stakes tests, but to use the sampling process already in place with NAEP.

Teaching is a social activity within and for a community, and Smagorinsky envisions teacher evaluation that is more than a number, including a wide range of stakeholders. This point reminds me of the use of the SAT in college admissions. When discussing the weight of SAT scores with a dean of admissions, he pointed out that even when SAT scores are weighted less in admissions formulas, most of the other categories cancel each other out (as they are similar) and SAT, although a lower proportion in the formula, essentially remains the gatekeeping data point.

Any percentage of VAM, then, can prove to be powerful in teacher evaluations that are not aggressively nuanced and multi-faceted, including expanding the input of most if not all stakeholders in the teaching of children.

While much of Smagorinsky’s discussion includes the complex details that should be involved in teacher evaluations (and thus, I recommend reading his essay in its entirety), a few key points can serve to conclude this consideration:

  • Teacher evaluations should be designed as “some form of mediated discussions, with artifacts from teaching serving as the basis of the conversation” (p. 171). Important here is a process that sets aside hierarchy for dialogue, seeks teacher growth instead of ranking and punishing, and builds a consensus on a rich body of evidence (artifacts) instead of reductive metrics.
  • Teacher evaluations should address the entire spectrum of teacher influence, not restricted to classroom and content only. In short, Smagorinsky highlights that being a teacher is more than lessons presented to her/his students.
  • Implicit in Smagorinsky’s discussion, I would add, is that teacher evaluation should not continue the assumption that teacher impact is solely between one teacher and one student. Learning results from the input of many people in a child’s life; teacher evaluations should acknowledge collaboration as well as individual competence and impact.

“I again return,” Smagorinsky notes toward the end, “to the idea that what matters is how well a teacher can justify an instructional approach and relate it to student work”—and I would add, demonstrated student need (p. 182). Teacher quality should not be about teachers fitting a prescribed mold, but about the professional efficacy of a teacher’s practices in the context of the field and students that the teacher teaches.

While I recommend Smagorinsky’s proposal because he emphasizes that “[t]eaching and learning are human pursuits” (and thus, likely unmeasurable in any meaningful way), I also want to stress that this essay is but one piece of evidence that the field of education already knows what to do.

Common Core, VAM-style teacher evaluation, and the entire array of education reform are ultimately misguided because they are commentaries based on flawed assumptions about the field of education.

Despite the education bashing that has occurred in the U.S. for over 100 years, we in fact know what to do—if only politicians, pundits, and bureaucrats could see fit to get out of the way and allow the opportunity to prove it.

Until that happens, we educators must begin to make our case for alternative to misguided reform, and in ways that are accessible to all stakeholders in public schools.