Boston teacher evaluations: Grading on a curve

A LOT OF eyebrows went up last week with the news that 92 percent of all teachers in the Boston Public Schools have been rated as proficient or advanced under a new evaluation system. It’s hard to accept such a finding at face value when state education officials have cited nearly half of the city’s schools as poor performers.

The teacher evaluation process in Boston is a work in progress. Evaluators can now drop in on classrooms unannounced. That’s better than the shabby efforts of prior years, when principals made appointments to evaluate teachers or, in many cases, did no evaluations at all. But it will be another year before measures of student progress, such as scores on standardized tests, get factored into teachers’ evaluations. A clearer picture should emerge then on whether the system is making headway on its promise to place a strong teacher at the head of every classroom.

School Committee member Meg Campbell suspects that the high rankings reflect a form of “grade inflation’’ for teachers. Campbell is an experienced educator who heads an effective charter school in Dorchester. She cites a deep-rooted culture in public education that frowns on educators who criticize each other. That “everybody gets a star’’ mindset might explain the 92 percent proficiency and exemplary ratings, she said. If so, both principals and teachers need to remind themselves that the overarching purpose of evaluations is to make improvements in the classrooms, not score career points. And that requires a willingness to assert — and absorb — constructive criticism.


The teachers’ union is looking with great concern and skepticism at evaluation data that places a larger proportion of minority and older teachers in the lower performance categories. If conscious or unconscious bias is at play, it must be rooted out. There is an opportunity to do that right now as principals undergo evaluations of their own.

Boston will become a great urban school system only when it pairs its best teachers with its hardest-to-teach students. And only an honest and carefully calibrated teacher evaluation system can create that match.