Teacher evaluations have an import impact on the teachers’ well-being and their quality of teaching. What are the most common trends in current teacher evaluations and the accompanying pitfalls? A lot of confidence is placed in principals to evaluate teachers, what does this implicate for the teacher evaluations?
Evaluations are inherently part of one’s professional career. Not even schools and teachers can escape this reality. And there is a good reason for that. The teacher evaluation serves two purposes. Firstly, through an evaluation teachers can be held accountable for their achievements (or lack thereof). Secondly, it is an opportunity to develop their professional competences as teachers. The teacher evaluation therefore affects the teachers’ professional development and the teachers themselves. Unfortunately, not only in a positive way. Teacher assessments are not an unlikely cause of professional insecurity, anxiety and stress among teachers. Some countries, such as Portugal, Poland and Spain even publish the (partial) results of school assessments. The pressure on the teachers grows as their performances are turned into quantifiable and comparable data. Nonetheless, a good teacher evaluation has the potential to improve teaching quality dramatically. An appraisal affirms the professional identity of teachers and encourages qualitative teaching practices. As teacher evaluations have an important impact on the teachers’ well-being and their quality of teaching, we look at the most common trends in the current teacher evaluation and the accompanying pitfalls.
A precarious balancing act
The challenge for school education systems is establishing and sustaining professional learning communities and cultures to support school development. Teacher evaluation is an essential part in ensuring the quality of education, but not a straightforward choice. The school systems must deal with multiple dilemma’s: globalization versus autonomy and accountability versus development. Should the teacher evaluation be carried out by externally trained professionals or should the responsibility go to a local agent such as the school principal? Does the evaluation focus on standards by which the teachers can be held accountable or is the professional development more important?
Many countries such as the USA, Portugal, New-Zealand and Belgium (Flanders) balance the different dilemma’s in the following way: standards are to be maintained making all teachers accountable. Yet it falls on the shoulders of school principals to regulate the evaluation systems while providing teachers with opportunities for professional development. At present, most school systems prefer to move in this direction. The autonomy to evaluate lays on the shoulder of the school principal. He is responsible for balancing the accountability and development aspects of teacher evaluation. But how does this prevailing trend shape teacher evaluations?
A principal’s responsibility…
Across Europe the central government is increasingly focused on supporting and enabling change at a local level. This tendency is also visible in the teacher evaluation, where the school principal manages the evaluation. Melissa Tuytens and Geert Devos (2018, p. 209) of Ghent University took a closer look into the teacher evaluation policy as perceived by school principals in Flanders (Belgium). The policy prescribes that all teachers in primary and secondary schools have to be formally evaluated every four years. Although the value of teacher evaluation was never questioned by the principals partaking in the research, they stated that the extra workload was not to be underestimated.
Traditionally schools in Flanders have relatively much autonomy in safeguarding the quality of education. The quality of education is only monitored and stimulated from above through school inspections. Such an inspection checks whether a school does indeed meet the educational qualitative requirements. Does the inspected school achieve the intended objectives? Does the school sufficiently monitor its own operation and quality?
While external evaluators aid to improve the evaluation process at school level, principals are still in charge of the teacher evaluations. The privileged responsibility can be a motivational factor for the principals. The external evaluators provide frameworks and reporting structures to streamline and gather information. The gathered information ensures alignment with internal school evaluations and generates more coherence. It is not an easy challenge however for the principal to meet societal and governmental expectations. The workload can be overwhelming for a school principal. Moreover, a school inspection is not a walk in the park. The following e-mail makes the pressure accompanying an inspection for the whole school team palpable :
With this message the school principal informed the complete staff of the impending inspection. It illustrates that an inspection is stressful and the job of a principal demanding. Some principals, for example, have too many teachers to evaluate, which causes a lot of stress.
Placing trust in local actors such as the school principal to evaluate their teachers is an excellent consideration. It is a privileged responsibility, which motivates school principals to identify with teachers what is working well and where improvement is needed in teaching. External evaluators can help to streamline the gathered information and ensure coherent results. The workload for the principals however should not be underestimated.
…. to balance accountability and feedback
It is generally assumed that the aim of teacher evaluation is to formatively support teachers’ professional development, where feedback is provided to the teachers on how to improve their teaching skills. Yet teacher evaluation practices are predominantly summative in nature, which is to discuss the performance of the teacher related to the job standards. Teachers are held accountable and compared to others. The contemporary discourse of teaching focuses on making the individual quantifiable.
School principals in Flanders receive the autonomy to evaluate their teachers both formatively and summatively. First, the principals provide their teachers with constructive feedback to enhance their teaching, which impacts the general quality of education in the school. Second, the principals hold all teachers accountable for their work. A report of the European Commission on the governance of school education systems notes that it is of the utmost importance to clearly separate the different kinds of feedback. It is of capital importance to distinguish between feedback that is meant to help teachers to improve classroom teaching on the one hand from appraisal for high-stakes decisions related to performance awards and/or career advancement on the other hand. When career consequences are linked to constructive feedback, teachers are not prone to open up about areas where they feel they need to improve. Teachers consequently miss out on important opportunities for feedback and support. This consideration is corroborated by Thomas, a young substitute teaching in Flanders:
The school principal informed me that she tries to visit and observe all new teachers at least once to provide them with constructive feedback. I was curious to hear the feedback. Principals have to visit and evaluate all their teachers, including substitute teachers as was the case for me. A few hours before the planned observation, she informed me that the classroom observation next week would be instrumental in future decisions whether to hire me again. Immediately, the pending classroom observation became a source of stress (Thomas, 26 years, March 2 2019).
Thomas’ story illustrates how important it is to clearly separate the different feedback. Career consequences were attached to the feedback moment. The opportunity for genuine professional learning was lost and it contributed to unnecessary pressure. Irrelevant pressure can lead to demoralization. Chris Bradford and Melissa Braaten refer to demoralization as ‘the processes that contribute to discouragement and despair experienced as teachers’ vision of good teaching and sense of integrity as professionals comes into conflict with job expectations’. Trust in the quality of the evaluation process and a clear division between formative and summative evaluation practices are therefore vital to generate professional growth.
Teacher evaluation has the potential to be the most meaningful tool in teacher training and is therefore an essential part in assuring a qualitative education. Different countries implement different approaches in how they integrate external and internal mechanisms and balance accountability and professional improvement. At present, most school systems prefer to give full responsibility to the school principals. They are in charge of the formative and summative teacher evaluations. Although it is a privileged responsibility, the workload can be overwhelming for school principals.
Furthermore, in order to establish and sustain professional learning communities the division between formative and summative evaluations must be clear for all actors. Learning opportunities are lost when career consequences are linked to constructive and open feedback moments. Trust in the evaluation process therefore enables a more effective evaluation.
Bradford, C. & Braaten, M. (2018). Teacher evaluation and the demoralization of teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 49-59.
European Commission (2018). European Ideas for Better Learning: Governance of School Education Systems. Brussels: European Commission.
Lillejord, S., Elstad, E., & Kavli, H. (2018). Teacher evaluation as a wicked policy problem. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 25(3), 291-309.
Quintelier, A., Vanhoof, J., Heyninck, N., & Penninckx, M. (2016). De impact van de schooldoorlichting op emoties en het professioneel zelfverstaan van leerkrachten. Pedagogiek, 36(2), 107-134.
Tuytens, M. & Devos, G. (2018). Teacher evaluation policy as perceived by school principals: the case of Flanders (Belgium). Teachers and Teaching, 24(3), 209-222.