The Gift of Teaching

Posted on Mar 9, 2012 | 11 Comments

How do you evaluate something as intangible as teaching?

However hard it may be, we’ve been trying especially hard in recent years to find ways to measure teacher performance. In New York City, much to the chagrin of the United Federation of Teachers, the Department of Education has released a database ranking almost 18,000 teachers individually. Across the country, schools are now evaluating teachers by student test results in all sorts of subjects, beyond just math and reading.

As we’ve noted before (and more than once) Peter Drucker believed strongly in schools measuring performance. (Whether he would have supported making every teacher’s name public is another matter.) “The greatest change—and the one we are least prepared for—is that the school will have to commit itself to results,” Drucker wrote in Post-Capitalist Society. “It will have to establish its ‘bottom line,’ the performance for which it should be held responsible and for which it is being paid. The school will finally become accountable.

As for whether something like a bubble test could do the job, Drucker’s feeling was that, yes, it could. “‘The development of the whole personality’ as the objective of the school is, indeed, intangible,” Drucker conceded in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “But ‘teaching a child to read by the time he has finished third grade’ is by no means intangible. It can be measured easily and precisely.”

What Drucker couldn’t explain, though, was how to make a poor teacher a good one. In fact, in his memoir, Adventures of a Bystander, Drucker lamented the power of those “who promise to be able to teach teaching” and observed that “we have focused on teaching as a skill and forgotten what Socrates knew: teaching is a gift, learning is a skill.”

And, of course, if this is true, it doesn’t leave much room for teacher improvement.

What do you think? Can teacher evaluations be made into productive tools for improving our schools—and, if so, how?


  1. Jean Sanders
    March 10, 2012

    My professor in the 1970s told us that the only thing they could measure that was significant for student test scores was the teacher’s vocabulary (of course that implies grammar, usage, syntax). I know there have been research studies on value added but the complexities are vast. I know it is like evaluating the Boston hospitals where they have some of the most severe conditions and illnesses ; how do you have any reasonable measures for that? The paradigm always gets reduced to dollars per unit (production)…. The variables are not controlled for and when you are dealing with human populations these are not well understood. We just had a study published this week saying that cocaine use by the mother does not effect the child’s (I think it was IQ , I don’t know if they took into account the child’s educational standard). I know when I read the full report there will be a lot of open questions (based on my 40 years of experience in the field and being the step-mother of a brain injured child) . This is a mean and cruel expression; but, when it comes to education “you can grow strawberries in March but at some expense.” The politicians keep trying to get the expense down. That is where the educational research gets distorted. I agree that we need lower costs for health services but time studies of nurses is only one minute focus and teacher bashing is not helpful. I am of the opinion that health care and educational services have ALWAYS been rationed. I am willing to write with anyone who disagrees. I’m trying to adopt Bill Clinton’s approach when defeated: “Where did I go wrong?”

  2. Reggie
    March 10, 2012

    I have worked with public education for some time now, and I think I can offer a fair point of view. My position is based only on evaluations of teachers who are actually getting good results and are obviously trying to do well. Teacher evaluations can be made into productive tools, but only with the Socratic view so well placed: we can learn as students of our craft how to grow and share the gift of teaching. If evaluations are solely used for external reinforcements of desired behaviors then we are only silly Skinnerians hoping that we will get what we want. Using evaluations as rewards or punishments not only demeans the humanity of our craft but goes against what we know about Motivation 2.0 via Daniel Pink’s DRiVE. Yes, evaluate. Use the evaluation to assist the student as teacher in taking steps to become the master guru.

    • jean
      March 10, 2012

      Reggie; thanks for the comments. Over the years we’ve discussed collegial supervision, performance evaluation, and “promising practices” and your ideas fit well with that model. With Mitre corporation we looked at “teacher effectiveness” as a different way to express “evaluation” Major efforts from the Federal government were directed towards diffusion of these “successful practices.” Again, the evaluation of what is “successful” became politicized…. this also happened with the major emphasis on reading in the past 10 years. The fox guards the hen house. The evaluators own major stakes in the program being evaluated and federal dollars get tied to specific programs that have the “inside” edge on the competition. One of the best innovations evaluated that I am aware of was Pat Suppes math curriculum. We tried his computer program for math in about 6 school districts and the program was known to produce improved math scores given 10 additional minutes (supplemental) per day in the math skills on the Pat Suppes curriculum. So it was the program and also increased time on task using the technology. We evaluated the Pat Suppes reading comprehension curriculum on computers and found that it took two school years to show the gains (that appeared to come so “easily” in math).
      When other developers produce curricula or when teachers create the curriculum for the technology you cannot guarantee the same results just because a technology is in use. A major problem in evaluation is fidelity of the teaching following the program guidelines. One technology program we evaluated found that a particular teacher at the middle school was the best in teaching written language whether she taught using the technology or her original method using the standard classroom practices…. so there was a teacher effect in that case. How would one “reward” this teacher who got the best results? We attempted to control for the differences in student abilities so that classes were comparable but all indications were that this teacher was getting significantly better results (no matter which method she used). I have tried to read thoroughly the Sanders value added research… I still don’t know how one would control for the fact that we don’t want to unfairly penalize the hospital that has the patients who are most ill. I use the hospital because it is a less painful scene for me than a school. The robust conclusion about these hospitals is that the teaching and research hospitals get the best statistics (presumably no matter how ill the patients are who enter). So maybe what you are saying is that we need to do a better job as far as “teaching and research” at the local level? at the state level? This is not what the budget director wants to hear when trying to trim the overall costs of the programs. Federal research (R&D) has tried to work through some of these issues but I still believe it is rocket science. My major concern is that research is used to show , as with the Coleman report, nothing you do makes a difference anyway as a teacher (which is what school committees might like to use when stripping the local budget). Of course that was proven to be incorrect but major decisions were made for school district budgets when the Coleman report was waved around.

  3. George L. Williams
    March 10, 2012

    Technology is steadily “de-massifying” our economy and our society. It is long past time we “de-massified” k-12 education! Public schools in this country are like stockyards in critical ways — they are too large and they stink! in their performance.

    Our mass approach to k-12 education serves no one well. Technology applied to training soldiers to stay alive in Irac and Afghanistan can be adapted to de-massified schools that bring back the parent-teached-adminstrator partnership.

  4. howie mandel
    March 10, 2012

    Reading your discussion of teaching in the 21st century research at the Johns Hopkins School of Education offers an answer:

    Dr. Hardiman just published a book
    The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for
    21st-Century Schools
    which I think would satisfy Peter Drucker et al….

  5. Mike Grayson
    March 11, 2012

    I just attended the 2012 National Association of Secondary School Principal (NASSP) Convention in Tampa and had the opportunity to meet with many principals. I’ve gone to these conventions every year for quite some time and the attitude has never changed, they want to do a better job, but they are often prevented from doing so by being burdened with student discipline, parental malaise, the inability to clean house, normally due to unions, and the demands to teach subjects that have nothing to do with literacy.

    The school principal of today can have a pretty tough job, they are often expected to be the defacto parent, and deal with a child that doesn’t particularly care about school and thinks they will become famous by some other means. The news media and entertainment industry does little to promote the values of a good education, and a lot to promote the one contestant who will win a million dollars in a singing contest.

    There is no magic to literacy. The method has never changed, and it is usually a repetitive and often boring process. To learn the alphabet, it must be memorized. To learn to count, it must be memorized. To learn to do math, the processes must be practiced and are repetitive, and they too must be memorized. There is nothing new about how we learn, even though we may be looking at a computer screen instead of a sheet of paper. However, the new technology does provide a means for immediate feedback to the learner, that may not be available to a student in a large class.

    We have done numerous studies and have concluded that the Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80/20 rule applies to almost any student population, whether it is inner city or suburban. That is, roughly 80% of the students cooperate, get there on time, and try to do the work. We found that 16% will not do the work without someone standing over them, holding them accountable, either the parent or the teacher, sadly many parents do not embrace this role. And 4% aren’t going to do the work no matter who tries to hold them accountable.

    So, if you apply this fact to evaluating a student population, then you know that a teacher trying to get the 16% and the 4% to pass, is going to be exhausted, and will likely ignore those of the 80% who are struggling trying to understand the concept, because they just don’t have the time, and likely lack the energy.

    Evaluation is important, but what is more important is to allow the teacher to focus on those who want to learn, and remove those who don’t from the environment, and place them in a different kind of environment that focuses on the correction of behavioural issues. Then, testing would more likely reflect what the teacher is actually able to accomplish.

  6. Dx Reader
    March 11, 2012

    Yes. They must be. And teaching should be reciprocal. The best teachers learn from their students — every day.

    • Nick Webb
      April 11, 2012

      I totally agree but after 25 years of teaching I find the great majority of teachers still insist on being right often to the detriment of the learning process. Students can offer so so much and yet are still expected to operate in a regime which all too often stiffles their creativity in an attempt to attain the required teacher view, What if that is questionable let alone wrong?

  7. Pat Leonard
    March 11, 2012

    The tangibles—reading as income statement, solving a linear equation, developing proficiency in a foreign language, writing a contract, etc tend to lend themselves to objective measures. The intangibles cover a subjective range. Many of which cannot be objectively measured in the short term of a course or curriculum. They emerge and morph in the post graduation years. Yet in the short term, we employ portfolios to suggest trajectories.

  8. Alba Patricia Valencia
    March 11, 2012

    Evaluation is good to improve in all senses. It is a powerful tool. This result our permit feedback to the administrative process.

    Evaluation can be congruent between evaluator and evaluated. Because as part of a society of self-renovation, open to the learning of building advantages based on a combination of variables of diverse factors, evaluation as a necessary complement to cross expectations with skills, attitudes, resources and context, convenience and viability.

    La evaluación es buena para mejorar en todos los sentidos. Es una herramienta poderosa. Sus resultados nos permiten retroalimentar el proceso administrativo.

    La evaluación debe ser congruente entre evaluador y evaluado. Porque nosotros como parte de una sociedad con capacidad de autorrenovación, abiertos al aprendizaje que construye ventajas basadas en combinaciones con variables de distintos factores, la evaluación es un complemento necesario para cruzar expectativas con habilidades, actitudes, recursos y contexto, conveniencia y viabilidad.

  9. The Feedback | The Drucker Exchange
    March 13, 2012

    [...] also asked our readers if teacher evaluations, those thorny creatures, can be made into beneficial [...]


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