Dr. Stephen Mucher, Bard College – The History of Teacher Evaluation

Aug 16, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Stephen Mucher of Bard College explains the motivations behind the first teacher observations of the nineteenth century. 

Stephen Mucher is an assistant professor of history and education at Bard College. His teaching and research interests include history education, the history of education, and the development of historical thinking processes in adolescents. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.

About Dr. Mucher

Dr. Stephen Mucher – The History of Teacher Evaluation

On a warm day in May of 1881, teachers in Battle Creek Michigan nervously welcomed two special visitors into their high school.  One was noted historian, Charles Adams.  The other--esteemed mathematician Wooster Beman.  The implication of their appearance was well understood. With accreditation on the line, the professors had arrived to evaluate the school’s teaching.

Any anxiety these teachers experienced that day may feel familiar to educators today who are given consequential numerical grades by visiting principals. But quantifying teaching never crossed the minds of Adams and Beman. They were part of a radical new plan to improve college enrollment.  This plan sent dozens of scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and literary scholars into schools to watch teachers.  Most watched with great interest.  Indeed, they often found themselves watching their own former students.

Adams and Beman walked into Battle Creek that day, not with accountability on their mind, but with big-picture curiosity.  They were armed, not with observation protocols, but with a conviction that teaching is endlessly complex.  They did not single out the best teachers but rather sought ways to encourage intellectual community.  They focused on evidence that teachers cared about what they taught.  And they viewed teaching as a deeply human endeavor. Adams and Beman left Battle Creek impressed.

But on hundreds of similar visits, observers walked away discouraged.  Too often they witnessed uninspired teaching.  The visit reports cite why: teachers did not know their subject matter. This unwavering belief in subject matter knowledge guided observations. But observers also drew more surprising conclusions.  Years of interacting with public school teachers changed them.

By the 1880s, several professors introduced special courses on teaching.  Others successfully pushed the university to hire the nation’s first Chair of Pedagogy. Still others formed a new club inviting teachers to campus for regular conversations about instruction. Among the founders of that club was a 25-year-old junior professor of philosophy named John Dewey.  Dewey knew only one reason for observing teachers: To advance this noble conversation. Dewey would be heartened if he could see how much attention teaching has received recently.  But he might wonder why so few professors visit classrooms.  He might wonder what became of the noble conversation.  And he might wonder how we ended up putting numbers on teaching.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.