Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Lie to Me

(Hat tip: Nadhir Moghli.)

As a teacher, are you average, better than average or below average?

A survey of college professors at the University of Nebraska found that nearly 100% of the teaching staff thought they were "above average" as teachers, according to this 2006 article. A mathematical impossibility. If there is an average, most of them should be around it, not above it. 

The article discusses how self-assessment can be flawed*, but what I wish to focus on here is a different matter.

"Average, below average, above average teacher"? Those terms presuppose a comparison or even a competition among teachers! 

Why should we be going against each other? There are perhaps instances when it may be necessary for management to choose a teacher over the other (promotions and bonuses spring to mind), but for most intents and purposes, doesn't it make sense for a school to want as many effective teachers as possible? Wouldn't a reality of 50% of average teachers -- with a few the worse, and a few the better -- be bleak and saddening for us all?

Is this how you see your teacher's lounge? 
(Source: TABMathletics)

Instead of comparing a teacher against the whole teaching staff in a norm-referenced approach to teacher evaluation, it would be a lot more interesting to adopt a criterion-referenced approach, i.e. to agree upon a set of criteria to assess teaching ability and then evaluate teachers -- via self-assessment or any other form -- against those criteria. In other words, dropping the idea of average for the concept of standard (below standard, up to standard, above standard). After all, I could be the "best" teacher in a group of ineffective teachers and still be ineffective. And the opposite is also possible: I may be the "worst" teacher in a group of super teachers and feel terrible about myself, when in fact I am an overall effective teacher with huge potential for improvement.

In short, numbers lie. Especially averages. And when it comes to teacher evaluation, it is in the interest of the students that we try and be as fair as possible in depicting the reality of their education.

I'd love to know your opinion on this. How do you think teacher evaluation should be conducted?

*In all fairness, the article ends with what I believe is a great message: "When we accept the proposition that we’re not as good as we think, we’re already considerably better than we were." I wholeheartedly agree with the author in terms of how perception can skew our judgment, how we shouldn't see teaching as a single-trait competence, and above all how we must be committed to constant professional development. What I don't buy is the idea that we should be averaging teachers.


  1. I think most of us will agree that subjective evaluations are rarely accurate and cannot be relied upon, generally speaking. Most of all, they can be easily challenged in terms of validity. This is not to say that they have no value, nor that they do not take place at all levels, including among peers. With the latter, they can always be taken with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, particularly if the judgement is going to affect careers and pay, I suppose that we all hope to be judged as objectively as possible.

    Since we live in an era where 'performance appraisals' (PA) are common, both in the business world and in the educational sector, the hope is that objective evaluations would prevail over subjective evaluations. That said, I know many professionals who hate them passionately, consider them a waste of time and as having a destructive impact on relationships in the workplace.

    I admit that I hate PA too, but they are part of management systems and as such, love them or hate them, I accept that they are here to stay. The only problem is how do you make them accurate, fair and effective? If I had the answers, I think I could be rich!

    1. Hi, Nadhir! Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that PA will always be a bit uncomfortable. After all, evaluations are necessarily subjective to some extent and as employees we may resent the potential unfairness that brings to the table. I also agree that they are often necessary. Now if the criteria represent good teaching practices and the evaluation is carried out in an unbiased manner, PA could actually encourage professional development. What are good teaching practices, though? What makes a good teacher? That's the holy grail, imho.


Please put your two cents in!