Two stories and a missing narrative

On Monday, there was an editorial in the Times detailing the failure of most performance evaluation systems. This management professor, Samuel Culbert, offered his take on how most individuals are evaluated at work:

As anybody who has ever worked in any institution — private or public — knows, one of the primary ways employee effectiveness is judged is the performance review. And nothing could be less fair than that.

In my years studying such reviews, I’ve learned that they are subjective evaluations that measure how “comfortable” a boss is with an employee, not how much an employee contributes to overall results. They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations. They almost guarantee that the owners — whether they be taxpayers or shareholders — will get less bang for their buck. Performance reviews are held up as objective assessments by the boss, with the assumption that the boss has all the answers.

In a single line, he notes:

Performance reviews are held up as objective assessments by the boss, with the assumption that the boss has all the answers.

Now let’s go back a few weeks in the Times to this story, “U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?” Here the reporter points out that not only are most turnaround efforts headed by the same principals that served schools before the reform began but also that there simply were not enough qualified principals-in-waiting to take over.

From my experiences in Philadelphia, and from the countless stories relayed by my former students and current student teachers, there’s no question that the current administrative force is, at the very least, totally overwhelmed. But these two stories highlight a narrative unheard in most discussions about unions and improving teacher quality: not only is the process broken but the individuals in charge of completing the evaluation may not be in a position to do them well. I’ve now had three teachers report evaluations where they were asked to put flags up so that students would feel welcome and as a way of demonstrating their own cultural competence as a teacher.


I know that there are initiatives to develop genuine peer-review processes. And I know there are caring, thoughtful principals out there But too many teachers find themselves negotiating bizarre interpersonal situations in order to please a “boss” who cares more about flags then the ways the teacher has put their students in a position to succeed.

Many teachers word hard to visit other classrooms, to read the latest literature, to constantly evaluate their own practice. We will build a school that honors these efforts, where teachers and students work collaboratively to assess their own progress as learners, and where the success of a teacher will be obvious to all in the authentic work their students complete each day, week, and year.