There are a lot of ways the personnel/human capital conversation in education is different than in other fields but a big one seems to be how we think about performance versus fit. What I mean by that is that, in general, people are not suited for a job for two broad reasons. One is performance, they lack the ability, skills, or some combination to be effective in a role. The other is fit. By fit I’m referring to someone who is generally effective but is struggling to be effective in a particular role. We see this latter issue all the time in various high-profile roles in all walks of life.
Here’s an illustrative example of the fit issue from professional hockey: When the Washington Capitals let Bruce Boudreau go as their coach earlier this season no one thought that he wasn’t a good coach (in fact he was the fastest coach to 200 wins in the modern era of hockey) but people wondered if he was no longer a good fit for the Caps given personalities on the team and so forth. One obvious signal of the respect for Bodreau? He was picked up as the head coach of the Anaheim Ducks just two days after the Caps released him. Anaheim wanted to make sure he didn’t land elsewhere and fired their coach to make room for Boudreau. The Ducks were abysmal but are now climbing in the standings. (On the context point it’s worth noting that his replacement, Caps legend Dale Hunter, is now having is own issues.)
Yet the conversation about evaluations and performance in teaching is pretty binary. It tends to be about whether a teacher is “good” or not, or at best whether they can improve or not. But a whole different part of the conversation is being overlooked. Teachers, just like other professionals in all walks of life, might be “good” in one setting but not in another. They might thrive in one sort of leadership structure and not another, one type of school and not another, or with one group of students and not another. To be clear, there are people who lack the skills and ability to be effective and I’ll be the first one to say we can’t even talk honestly about that issue. But fit matters, too, and should be a greater part of this conversation. It matters in terms of giving teachers choices in their work environments but balancing those with questions of fit and effectiveness, differentiating amongst teachers more rather than treating them like widgets, and having hard conversations about performance. It also matters in terms of how we design and think about the technical tools of evaluation and how to use the data various methods produce. As is obvious to even a casual observer, we’re not very good as a field at doing any of those things. So the next time you hear the performance conversation, pause for a moment and think of Bruce Boudreau and his Ducks.