Peer Assessment Won’t Cut It

Most teachers are dedicated and hardworking, but some are not preparing children with the right stuff to succeed in today’s competitive world of jobs. US graduates and young adults underperform in math, technology and literacy compared with our developed economy competitors.  We cannot expect our new graduates to play a role in winning high value jobs in technology and manufacturing when successive waves of our graduates are out-performed by workers abroad.  K-12 education is not performing adequately.

The answer to who is accountable will depend on who you ask. Teachers point to parents’ failure to lead children in early reading, failure to enforce homework assignments, and the habit of treating local schools as a babysitting entitlement. Too many parents infuse their children with low expectations for performance, hoping that the stylish “every child gets a trophy” mentality will be an effective substitute for genuine academic progress.  Of course, it is not – it shortchanges superior performance and hides underperformance.

When a school system fails to honestly measure and report student progress, academic failure will be masked until a graduate fails to secure college entry or fails to land a decent entry-level job. The student’s academic progress should be known long before graduation.  Academic progress reports are essential to document the nature of success and failure early enough to take remedial action if needed.

Letter grades are often the equivalent of “every child gets a trophy.”  Letter grades are often a subjective guess by the teacher.  Numerical grades derived from tests with quantifiable results, even when redistributed onto a normal curve are more useful than letter grades at communicating changes in student performance.

American teacher unions fear using student performance improvement as a significant component in the performance of an individual teacher’s work.  They prefer peer assessments as the dominant measure of teacher performance.  Unless the students perform well, the teacher performance ascribed by another teacher or principal is irrelevant.  The school board, students, and parents must stay fixated on student performance.  Teacher assessment of other teachers is suspect of professional nepotism.

Of course, the school should assess teacher performance at regular intervals, preferably once per term, so that any performance which deviates from plan can be corrected. The most relevant metric for teacher performance assessment will be achieving targeted performance by the student.  That is the main goal for which the teacher was assigned to teach the class.

Before a teacher is hired, interviews place emphasis on factors that predict success in teaching.  Subject mastery, personal philosophy and personality are examples.  It is exceedingly difficult to teach chemistry, analytical geometry or German without a solid grounding in those subjects.   Some personal philosophies are better suited than others to teaching.  We tend to use our own philosophy as a template for assessing issues and our outlook becomes clear to our students.

A teacher’s philosophy that meets the needs of most students is essential.  Most children need preparation to face private sector jobs that are less secure than those that come with tenure.  Teachers should not sneer at private sector employment nor laud government employment.  Most children hope to grow up earning far more than their parents (and far more than a K-12 teacher).  Teachers should not disparage high income occupations, or aspirations to be an entrepreneur.  Some children will want to select college majors and subjects that are very difficult.  Teachers should, when possible, encourage students to tackle the advanced versions of subject matter.  It is foolish to expect that all students will perform at the same level?

Competition can foster higher achievement and, as ever, not every child gets a trophy.  As a private citizen, teachers can embrace any political philosophy they want.  In the classroom, however, it is difficult to provide the encouragement that most students need if the teacher embraces the outlook of a communitarian, for example.

Personality is also a factor that has a bearing on teaching efficacy. Many researchers at colleges of education seem to engage in mapping personality types to teaching performance.    Among the “best” teachers (based on peer assessment, administrator assessments, and student performance), the personality type producing the very best student outcomes is an ENFP personality on the Myers-Briggs instrument.  These teachers are “energetic and enthusiastic teachers who stimulate students to seek out what is unknown and make it known. They promote imagination and creativity in their classrooms through many different kinds of activities. Their students usually feel that their ENFP teachers understand them and help them to deal with their personal problems”. A few other personality types produce good results, but some personality types did not work well for the students. Personality should be a factor considered when hiring teachers.

Student performance in academic subjects is the central goal of our hugely expensive K-12 school systems. Teachers are paid to lead students to good academic performance. No matter how odious teacher unions find linking teacher performance to the reason they are paid, it must be done. A peer assessment of another teacher is an inadequate substitute for the genuine article.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research