Why Assess Teachers?

Throughout the United States, one hears the din of criticism of our educational system. A number of contradictory proposals to "fix" the schools are currently popular.

By Michael Apple

The first is organized around a vision of limited state and federal control; schools and teachers will become more efficient and effective, we are told, if we turn them over to the marketplace. This view is based on a belief that what is public is necessarily bad and inefficient and, conversely, that what is private is necessarily good and efficient.

The second set of proposals is centered around a vision of strong state and federal control; establishing national (or state) standards and national (or state) testing is the answer. Under this view, “public” can be good — but only when there is tight control over curriculum and teaching, based on what “we all know” is proper knowledge and teaching skills. Calls for more rigorous assessment of teachers are often part of this position.

As someone who has spent decades trying to make our schools more socially just, I do not want to dismiss criticisms of public education. Nor do I assume that all teachers are great and need no improvement. But we need to ask whether calls for more testing of teachers are part of a broader pattern of blaming teachers and schools for failed economic and social policies over which they have no control.

Two questions are important: What is this more rigorous teacher assessment supposed to accomplish? And, especially in the face of massive budget deficits and underfunding common to many school districts, will it actually make things worse? A brief essay is not the place to deal with the complex issues involved in teacher assessment. But there are critical issues that need to be addressed if one wants a genuinely progressive perspective on evaluating our teachers, students, and schools.

When assessment of teachers is done well and involves those being evaluated, it can provide a chance for teachers to reflect on their daily practices and improve. But in many cases, the assessment is not well done and has little impact on teaching. More important, the assessment is too often insulting to teachers, especially when those doing the evaluating are out of touch with the realities of classroom life. In such an approach, assessment is used to merely show what is being done wrong and is not designed to provide truly helpful feedback on how one can do better.

Even when the evaluator understands the complexities of classroom life, there is no universal agreement on “what makes a good teacher.” Thus much of the focus of assessment is on a limited range of generic “technical skills” or on an atomized list of relatively easy-to-measure “competencies” — which may not be key factors in why a teacher is successful.

While there undoubtedly are teachers who may be lacking in pedagogic expertise or who have basically been thrown into classrooms without sufficient training, most teachers possess generic technical skills. The problems in classrooms are rooted not in the lack of such skills, but in the lack of resources and in the alienation of students who see no future, given the racial and class divisions of our society and the loss of decent-paying jobs in urban areas. To deal honestly with these issues, however, would require exceptional amounts of human and financial resources. Unfortunately, our society has not shown that it is willing to seriously deal with these underlying economic and racial realities.

I do not mean to imply that we cannot take on the problem of teacher assessment and at the same time tackle the structured inequalities facing so many of our students. Yet we also need to learn from the checkered history of the recent growth in statewide testing of students.

It is generally recognized that standardized, simplistic, pencil-and-paper assessments of student learning are exactly that — simplistic. This recognition led many states to develop models of “authentic” assessment in which students are asked to demonstrate complex reasoning, amass portfolios of their work, and so on. Yet given the fiscal crisis in education, in those states developing “authentic” assessment, or more flexible models of testing as in Arizona or Wisconsin, money ultimately was only allocated for standardized tests. The “authentic” alternatives were deemed too expensive. Thus, in state after state, while the original impulse may have been to broaden the ways in which students could demonstrate their abilities, the result has been tighter and less flexible mechanisms of control, especially in those states that come under increasingly right-wing control. The tail of the test wagged the dog.

Given current and ideological realities, there is little reason to suspect the situation will be any different when assessing teachers.

Principles of Assessment

The pedagogic and social reasons for assessing teachers must go beyond simply finding out whether teachers possess technical skills and are “efficiently” trying to pass those skills on to students. There must also be a concern with the larger political and social context in which teachers operate, and with providing the resources they need to actually make a difference. Thus assessment must be concerned with social justice both inside and outside the classroom.

Under a social justice approach, teacher assessment would be guided by the following principles:

  • Assessment should improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged students by showing where more human and financial resources are necessary.
  • It should create a voice for those who have been marginalized or silenced in our schools.
  • Rather than highlighting defects in teaching or getting teachers to do more with less, it should focus on the contexts in which teaching actually occurs; it should ensure that teachers get the kind of support that enables them to do their job.
  • It should encourage, not discourage, teachers’ attempts to celebrate differences and diversity in their own teaching and assessment practices, rather than encouraging conformity, compliance, and control.
  • It should help provide spaces in which teachers have the time and resources to construct curricula that connect with the lives and experiences of their students — rather than pressuring them to provide standardized curricula supposedly linked to such rhetorical goals as “enhancing international economic competitiveness.”

Such assessment would go beyond an analysis of what is working in teaching and learning. Rather, it would also ask: What is working for whom? Are teachers being treated as thoughtful and critically reflective professionals?

Essential Questions

A “socially critical view of teacher evaluation,” as the Australian critical educator John Smyth argues, needs to be grounded in a broader range of issues involving not only teaching and curricula, but the connections between the classroom and the society in which schools operate. Drawing on Smyth, one could develop a list of questions that might be used to evaluate the effects of teaching and the social conditions under which teachers work. Such questions might include:

  • Who talks in this classroom and gets the teacher’s time?
  • How are the unequal starting points of students dealt with?
  • Is there a competitive or cooperative ethos in the classroom?
  • Whose ideas are considered the most important?
  • How do we know that learning is going on?
  • Are answers or questions more important in this classroom?
  • How does the arrangement of the room help or hinder learning?
  • How is conflict resolved?
  • How are inequalities recognized and dealt with?
  • Where do the learning materials come from?
  • How is failure defined? Who defines it?
  • How does the teacher work to change what may be unequal structures in the classroom?
  • What is being measured and assessed in the classroom. Why?
  • Are teachers able to choose to work collaboratively, on what, under what circumstances, with sufficient time and resources?

We could easily add to this list. But its thrust is to ask us to pay attention to issues of social justice in classrooms, to teachers’ working conditions and resources, and to the social and economic context in which schools operate. While it focuses on classroom assessment, it also examines the differential resources and power relations both inside the school and between the school and the larger political economy. By doing both, and without providing ways teachers can help each other improve, teacher assessment instead becomes a way to prevent us from examining the roots of problems in our schools and doing what is necessary to address those problems.

As Jonathan Kozol so powerfully shows in Savage Inequalities, it would be ludicrous to assume that schools are the same in affluent districts spending $14,000 a year per pupil and low-income districts spending $4,000 a year per pupil. No amount of rhetorical flourishes about “higher standards” and “more rigorous” student and teacher assessment can compensate for such inequities. And no amount of rhetorical demands about making schools and students “more economically competitive” can compensate for the fact that schools and teachers cannot, by themselves, overcome the poverty, joblessness, horrible housing conditions, and inadequate health care facing an increasingly large proportion of the American population. It is not the schools and teachers who moved their factories to other countries and thereby destroyed stable communities. And it is not the schools and teachers who have caused the levels of economic despair and the racially segregated division of labor that their students face.

Rather than continuing down the path of tighter control through more detailed assessment of technical skills, it would be more useful to look at public schools where teachers have asked the sort of questions outlined earlier, and where the schools are succeeding despite difficult circumstances.

Invariably, such successful schools are guided by certain principles: a close working relationship between the schools and their local communities; a collaborative spirit among teachers based on more, not less, collegial control and autonomy; a curriculum that is connected to the cultural and economic lives of the students; a commitment to social justice, not only in society but inside the school; and a democratic ethos that limits bureaucratic requirements.

In successful schools, “assessment” goes on continually — and in a way that helps, not hinders, the search for better educational policies and teaching practices. Granted, these schools and teachers do not come with a money-back guarantee of success. But nor do they judge their kids merely on how well they have learned to fill in blank circles.

Michael Apple is the John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His most recent books are Power, Meaning, and Identity (New York: Peter Lang, 1999) and Cultural Politics and Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1996).