Debates about evaluating are central to modern education reform. How do we evaluate teachers? How do we evaluate learning resources? How do we evaluate students? How do we evaluate schools more broadly? The debates exist on all levels of education, whether we are talking about elementary school or the traditional undergraduate and post-graduate institution. The pattern has to do with how we go about measuring, identifying and even rewarding quality or excellence. The problem is that we too often push for policies that drive new evaluation practices before we have a broad, substantive and thorough exploration of that which drives our evaluation. Consider the following examples.
Which teachers should be paid the most? If your answer is the teacher with the highest number and type of formal credentials (master’s, doctorate, etc.), what is it that you are trying to reward, recognize and reinforce in your organization? What research are you using to inform this policy that shows teachers with a master’s or doctorate in education teach in a way that improves student learning or enhances student’s lives more than a teacher without those credentials, or that this results in some other tangible and important goal in the learning organization? Credentials can be signs of knowledge and skill, but we also know that credentials and competence are not the same. Even when a credential strongly correlates to mastery of a body of knowledge and development of certain skills, that may not correlate to the knowledge and skill needed to do work well in a specific position at your learning organization.
How about a policy based on increased salary that is connected to the number of years on the job? Is there research to show that the longer you teach, the more effective you are in the classroom, regardless of other factors? How does the growing body of research about mastery and deliberate practice play into that decision? Or, is this just a way to reward loyalty and sticking with the same organization regardless of your impact and effectiveness? These are complicated matters and there are unexpected consequences around every policy and practice corner. Debates about teacher pay are about much more than pay. Some argue that we must let these be shaped by research, but research only serves policy when goals and values are established and agreed upon.
Who is Qualified to Teach?
Look at this on both the K-12 and higher education levels. How does your organization decide who is qualified to hire or stay in their teaching positions? What do your external accreditors demand of you in this regard? Who is instantly restricted from the pool? Does this rule out candidates who could potentially be among your best and most effective educators? What is really driving the criteria schools use to hire people? Whose interests are being protected? Whose are being ignored or minimized? Who are the winners and losers, and how does this support the primary mission and goals of the school?
While some treat such matters as straightforward and logical, not worthy of public debate and exploration, these appear to be appeals to power and authority, or efforts to protect a given group’s agenda more than an accurate description of the issue. Questions about teacher qualification on all levels, if we are willing to approach them with an open mind, lead us into many good and important debates about education.
Which readings and resources are appropriate for use in our classrooms and learning organizations? Who determines what is or is not appropriate, what is valid for academic purposes, and what is not? Some might argue that this is best placed in the hands of the professionals, but there are plenty of areas where professionals do not agree. Some argue that each professor should have autonomy in deciding this. What about on the K-12 level? When and where should such a standard remain? Education extends far beyond the most certain and objective scientific facts, and as such, there is room ample room for debate about how people make these decisions.
Even the evaluation of which sources are authoritative is increasingly controversial. I’ve spoken with faculty who refuse to even use readings from the web in a college course unless they are from peer-reviewed sources. As such, authority has less to do with the content of the text and more to do with submission to certain standards. Such a position has significant benefits and limitations.
How do we decide if a student is making progress? How do we determine if it is adequate? Do our measures benefit certain students while holding back others? How much should we focus on relative progress, where a student started compared to where they finished? What about more criterion-referenced and norm-referenced measures of progress? Our answers to these questions, if acted upon, will result in completely different types of learning communities.
There is plenty of conversation about giving school report cards. Look at the measures used for such report cards and they clearly respect one agenda while disregarding many others. What valued and valuable attributes of schools are rarely considered when evaluating schools?
Evaluation will continue to be an important part of modern education, but we must recognize that evaluations are tools, and each tool has a bias. As such, our best bet is to at least be deliberate about the tools (and biases) that we embrace, opting for those that best support our distinct mission for education.