Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Should school teachers get peer reviews? 

In an otherwise uninteresting column invited by education writer Jay Matthews at the Washington Post, Richard Chapleau has one suggestion worth thinking about.
My last act as emperor is the only one I know could really be achieved in the "real world" I hear so much about. I would take teacher evaluation away from administrators. Who is in charge of the American Bar Association? Attorneys. Who runs the AMA? Physicians. Who watches the teachers? People who haven't been in a classroom in many years. Administrators, criminally overworked administrators. They must watch hundreds of students, tens of secretaries and custodians, and also a few dozen teachers. Guess who takes up most of their time? The children who spent four years watching videos. Yet, these same harried administrators are also asked to give clinical input into the skills of classroom teachers.

Every teacher in the country could give you a list of who's pulling their weight and who should go to the emperor for a final paycheck. Teacher evaluations should be done by working teachers, in a manner similar to professors at most American universities. Professors take turns on some sort of "faculty review committee," where they check each other for professionalism, for commitment to learning new ideas, and for doing their jobs well. I hear many people complain about our public schools, but I still notice that people flock from all over the world to attend our universities. Perhaps it's at least partly because no university dean or provost sits in a professor's classroom for one hour every two years and calls that evaluation.
Now just about every academic that reads this blog will want to smack Chapleau upside the head and say "silly, that's not how tenure decisions work." And they're right. Still, when we let administrators evaluate teachers, evaluations are likely to be skewed towards teachers who create few problems, who get along. That's not necessarily (or even usually?) your best teachers.

The burden, though, is the union. The difference between the bar or the AMA and the teachers' union is that the former is run like a guild. It has self-policing qualities which are in the interests of the members to maintain. It's not perfect, of course, but there are at least some incentives to not let a few bad lawyers or physicians create bad publicity or lowered reputations for the rest, because the rest will suffer lower incomes if they do not self-police. But the teacher's union, having captured local school boards and at least one political party, can assure itself continued payments regardless of whether some of its members are doing their jobs well. So I doubt Chapleau's idea, if implemented, would result in an increase in educational quality.

UPDATE (6/11): Michael Lopez has his own list of ideas for how to run the schools.