For public schools, “artistes” need not apply

A few weeks ago, my summer class and I discussed teacher evaluations–the first paper for the class uses value-added measures in teacher evaluations as the case under discussion.1 This undergraduate class serves both several teacher-education programs and also the university’s general-education curriculum, and one of the students who is not in teacher education asked how P.E. teachers would be evaluated.2 We briefly discussed the idea of incorporating school measures of academics (which the students found ridiculous, though I thought I played Devil’s advocate effectively), and then to measures of health and out-of-class behavior in schools: if a key goal of P.E. is teaching appropriate behavior in sports and other physical endeavors — recognized by both state and national standards for P.E. — then can we evaluate P.E. teachers by how well students play with their peers on the playground during recess and lunch? The students said no.

We moved on to evaluation of classroom instruction based on observation. First, we discussed who should be observing teachers. The lead here was taken by students who were intending to be teachers, none of whom were in USF’s physical education program: They said they would not want to be observed and judged by those well outside their content area, so they did not want to try to evaluate P.E. teachers. We spent some time exploring the boundaries of “close enough expertise”: could high school P.E. teachers effectively observe their peers in middle school? Elementary school? Here in Tampa, one of the challengers to the local teachers’ union head this year was someone upset that a teacher from a different grade-level school was his peer observer.3 How about those who teach adaptive P.E.? Here, a member of the class who teaches adaptive dance in a local community center explained how specialized that type of skill is.

I then pushed a bit: it is easy enough to find a peer of even very specialized teachers in a school district as large as Hillsborough County’s. What about smaller districts, where there may be only one specialist in adaptive P.E., or tiny districts where there may be only one physics teacher? Students discussed some options, and I think a few decided at that point that tiny districts were problematic if isolated at critical moments (including peer evaluation of teaching).

I had two more cases up my sleeve–I asked how they would respond if a P.E. teacher in Hillsborough County said, “I teach P.E. through a gentle martial art. I am the only practitioner at my skill level in the U.S., and the only practitioner at my level who speaks English. No one can be my peer in content knowledge or pedagogy.” The class erupted at that point: “no way” was the sense of the whole group. You can’t teach P.E. entirely through martial arts, they said, not in a public school. They had a very clear sense that teaching martial arts as the sole activity of a P.E. class violated the expectations for the curriculum.

One last question: what about the teacher of a core academic subject who insisted she or he had a unique pedagogical approach, ways of relating to students that no one else could duplicate, one that could not be judged through classroom observation by any peer?4 The members of the class bristled at that suggestion: their clear sense was that teaching has a coherent body of knowledge, and you could not be a teacher and say that you stood entirely apart from your peers. I doubled down: “But my students’ test scores are great! Leave me alone if the results are good.” And then we had the best discussion of the day. In the end, the general sense of the class was still that teaching involved a concrete set of skills that could be observed in a classroom, and no teacher could legitimately use uniqueness in philosophy or knowledge as a way of avoiding peer judgment.

I describe this classroom discussion in part to explain why Deborah Meier’s perspective on teachers as independent intellectuals is wonderful… and yet still problematic. Academic teachers have to model being intellectual, and I am very sympathetic to the argument that as a consequence, they must have considerable freedom in the classroom. But there are several reasons why that freedom in teaching should not extend to completely free choice in what to teach and how to teach. If you are entirely unique, then there is no shared interest, no chance of fair peer review, and no collective enterprise of a school, just a set of boutique classroom experiences for students. In a functioning community of faculty, there will inevitably be some tension between shared views of teaching and individual styles, but there has to be some significant center of overlap if it is to be a school. In this, I suspect Meier would agree.

The other caution I have for those who would assert infinite freedom in teaching is political: if you want to argue against the use of student test scores as the dominant way of judging teaching effectiveness, you have to be able to propose an alternative. Professional standards of practice comprise an idea that most teachers can live with, but that requires that there be standards of practice covering a good part of what teachers teach, how they teach, and how they relate to students, to students’ families, and to peers. And you have to be willing to have someone evaluate whether teachers meet those standards of practice. You can persuade parents that teachers should be judged by standards of practice that have some reasonable level of stability and consensus, and that these standards are more important and more productive as an evaluation tool than student test scores. You will not persuade many parents that no one can judge you, that you are a teaching diva. Or, if you think you can, go ahead and open up a private school. Speaking as a parent, an historian of education, and a union member, I think the time is clear to put out a sign making clear that for public schools, artistes need not apply.

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  1. I am teaching the schools-and-society course in a six-week session: it’s intense, and because of that the class is smaller than the ten-week sections we are offering this summer. []
  2. That morning was one of the “chance favors the prepared” moments in teaching: I had already planned out a discussion of evaluation with P.E. teachers as the starting point, because I wanted students to get beyond the question of value-added to some of the more conceptual questions with evaluations and what we expect from teachers. []
  3. HCTA President Jean Clements was re-elected, but with a smaller majority than in several prior elections. []
  4. This hypothetical was not a matter of veering from the curriculum so much as pedagogical style. []