Mar 09, 2012

The Gift of Teaching

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?

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