About Evaluating Teachers

Dr. Louise Cowan, September 15th, 2014.

Teaching is, variously, a profession, a science, an art—and a calling. No objective way has ever been found to measure a preacher, a doctor, an artist, or a teacher. For this latter category, there can only be the sense of drive and energy, recognizable in the electrical crackle of a good classroom and the almost audible growth of students’ minds. Good teaching cannot be quantified; ultimately, it can be reliably evaluated only in retrospect. Certainly a good principal can develop the wisdom to look into the timeless realm evoked by an authentic teacher. Important as such administrators are, however, they need to be supported not only by a curriculum that represents the highest possible heritage of a people but by dedicated, experienced teachers steeped in the art and science of their profession.

What I am describing is a matter of utmost importance to a people’s future.  It has been replaced for almost a century by various theories that emphasize methods rather than content. In such an environment, administrators can evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness only by a certain kind of skill, kin to what the poet Keats called “negative capability.” This keen sort of empathy enables people to look beyond their own egos, even their own standards, in order to submit to a kind of enveloping action entirely different from any kind of predisposed assumption. It is good principals, therefore, to whom we should be primarily directing our gaze if we are concerned about the quality of American education.

Happily, with such an elusive quality as I am making teaching out to be, there are standards that apply to the pool of good teachers from which to draw.  They are as nebulous, however, as those that govern artists or scientists or doctors or poets, to be discerned only by the discerning. It is the responsibility of what we call “the administration” of a school to acquire the skill, the judgment, the patience and the wisdom to recognize the good teacher, as collectors and critics come to recognize good art–that is, by the whole form, not by any sort of listing of separable qualities

But it is better to have an ineffective teacher leading a class into the cadenced rhythms of the Iliad than into the shallow patterns of To Kill a Mockingbird.  The inadequacies of American public schooling, then, might be aid to stem not so much from the poor quality of its teaching as from the impoverishment of its curriculum.

The trouble with teacher-evaluation systems is that they measure something irrelevant to the true aims of education. For just as there is no recipe for a good poem, there can be none for the effective teacher. We can analyze what we’d like to see happen to the student lucky enough to come under the spell of a good teacher. Suddenly, for this fortunate person, the universe is permeated with meaning. Any genuine insight lights up an entire landscape and endows even the tiny details of life with significance.

How can a society produce teachers who can thus awaken such dormant powers in their students? Not, we have to be quick to say, by education courses. Not by any sort of formula. Only the inner movement of the teacher’s psyche can convey the immensity of the landscape illumined by insight.

Until we recognize that good teachers are artists—creating new worlds in those they instruct—we labor in vain in our public schools, turning out pupils who, though literate, have nothing much to say that could not be said better by machines.

A response based on excerpts from William Eger’s recent article in Education Week called “Education Is Not ‘Moneyball': Why Teachers Can’t Trust Value-Added Evaluations Yet.”