One Teeny Tiny Problem with Teacher Evaluations

Before you raise your voice in indignation, let me quickly declare that I am not against teacher evaluations. The point here is to keep things in perspective and understand why teacher evaluation is not the magic pill that many people believe it is.

Teacher evaluation is unlike the evaluations administered in any other profession. It is easy to evaluate managers, clerks, welders and plumbers; for a given period of time, one can set a target and compare it with actual output, and that will mostly tell us about the employee’s work performance. Such evaluations are easy since what we are doing is essentially evaluating against an ‘Economic Contract’.

Things start getting complicated once we enter the realm of ‘Social Contracts’.

The concept of social contract can be easily explained with an extreme example: Military.

How does one go about evaluating a solider? How does one decide how much salary should a soldier get? This is not an easy question since what you are doing is essentially putting a price tag on the soldier’s life. A soldier is not really fighting for money; soldiers fight because they love their country — they fight for freedom and democracy. This is why most of the sane population respects soldiers, because soldiers put their lives in danger and allow us to live without harm. (Let us not get into the issue of successive Republican governments dragging this country into unnecessary wars. This is leadership issue and not the fault of an individual soldier.)

Do you see the problem? A soldier has economic incentive but a large part of his contract is social rather than economic. We have a big problem if society starts treating Military as an economic contract. This is when we have complete anarchy leading to a failed state.

The same problem exists for teachers as well.

Many teachers are in the profession because they love teaching. They feel that they are doing something better for the society. They are touching individual lives, setting standards that the children are sure to follow for most of their lives. This is why teachers are (supposed to be) respected. They may not make much money but what they do is important for the future of this country.

A few weeks back we were having dinner with friends when the discussion turned to schooling. The school being discussed was the one that takes only students above the Mensa IQ standard. It is no wonder that the students from this school generally do well in later life. Someone else mentioned her own school. The school is ordinary. It does not have the glow that comes from exclusive selection process. What was interesting is that the person mentioned that almost every student from her batch has been extremely successful in life. She gave the credit to their teacher. Their teacher did not consider teaching a 9 to 5 job; he took personal interest in everyone and took equal efforts on every student.  Which school do you think is better? How do you evaluate such teachers? How do you evaluate dedication?

Putting in a wrong evaluation system will certainly be harmful. A criterion of number of students improving their grades will encourage teachers to ignore students who are academically lagging.

We need to be really careful with the criteria. Let us not encourage rogue elements to take shortcuts. Let us make sure that we reward consistency over a long period of time.

The ultimate test of a teacher is what his or her students turned out to be. Alas! This is something that is very difficult to measure. This is exactly why teachers have a social contract.

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