We are all familiar with the expression “sacred cow.” And, if we are perfectly honest, we would have to admit to having a large number of these highly esteemed bovines lumbering through the hallways of most of our schools throughout America.

What educational sacred cows come to your mind?

Here are just a couple off the top of my head: the 180-day school year; the six-period school day; single-subject scheduling; time schedules, bells and tardy slips; early start school day; grades and report cards; grouping students by age, desks in rows; credits and Carnegie units; spring break; ten week summer vacations; and final exams. MOO!

Here is one many of you likely did not include in your list: Performance Appraisals (otherwise known as teacher and staff evaluations).

The practice of administering annual performance appraisals has been around in nearly every type of organization in America for decades. It is so engrained in our psychology that the thought of not having evaluations is almost incomprehensible.

And yet the words “annual performance evaluation” strike fear and dread in the hearts of employees everywhere.

We cannot possibly slay this sacred cow, or can we?

Timothy Schellhardt wrote this in The Wall street Journal: “If less than 10% of your customers judged a product effective and seven out of ten said they were more confused than enlightened by it, you would drop it, right? So, why don’t more companies drop the practice of annual job-performance reviews?”

Well, one major corporation in America recently did just this. Adobe, the software company that produces software including Photoshop and Acrobat, killed this most sacred of corporate sacred cows for all 11,000 of its employees in 2012.

What does Adobe now do instead of annual performance reviews? Their managers conduct frequent “check-ins” with employees where they provide them with targeted coaching and advice. There is no prescribed format or frequency for these conversations, and managers don’t complete any forms or use any technologies to guide or document what happens during such conversations.

Managers are simply expected to have regular check-ins to convey what is expected of employees, give and get feedback, and help employees with their growth and development plan. The aim is to give people information when they need it rather than months after teachable moments have passed. Adobe seems to be doing just fine without the ritual of annual performance evaluations.

You can read the full article of Adobe’s shift away from performance reviews HERE.

At this point, you are probably thinking to yourself: “This system could never work in education.”

Why not? I would submit that the current practice of teacher evaluation is highly inefficient and meaningless for a majority of staff members. I admit that some employees may need a higher level of coaching and support. But, why do we have to subject everyone to this same process and why does this need to take the form of a formal evaluation. How many poor teachers have you seen terminated in your career as a result of instructional ineffectiveness? I am guessing for most schools, this is a small number.

In education, we are actually moving in the opposite direction as many profitable corporations like Adobe. Most states are now implementing even more detailed performance evaluations for teachers and leaders (under the guise of accountability), while corporations are taking steps to move away from the practice. One CEO jokes that if the performance review was a drug, it wouldn’t be approved by the FDA because “it is so ineffective and has so many vile side effects.”

The current process of teacher evaluations is supported by an outdated Theory X theory of human motivation that assumes employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can. Instead, I submit we should treat our employees according to a Theory Y framework that assumes employees may actually enjoy work and may be ambitious, self-motivated, and exercise self-control?

Let me ask this question. Would your performance suffer and would you be less motivated to do your best if you did not receive an annual evaluation? In other words, do you go to work each day motivated by the potential extrinsic reward of a good annual evaluation, or rather—as Daniel Pink says in his transformational book, DRIVE—are you intrinsically motivated by a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose?

Performance reviews “are rarely authentic conversations,” writes Pink in “Think Tank.” More often, “they are the West’s form of Kabuki theatre — highly stylized rituals in which people recite predictable lines in a formulaic way and hope the experience ends quickly.”

Does Pink’s analogy ring true to most of the performance reviews in which you have led or participated?

If we think the performance evaluation process is so useful, why don’t we use it in our personal lives? Why not have a conversation with our spouse or significant other like this:

Honey, it is time for your annual performance appraisal. For the sake of our relationship and the well-being of our family unit, I want you to prepare for a discussion of your strengths and weaknesses and the ways you have fallen short of your goals this year. Also, dear, I would like to help you define some stretch goals for the coming year. Don’t be stressed. I have been highly trained in the use of the Spouse Evaluation Program (SEP) and am here to support you in your personal growth. Would you please sign and date the form here.

Good luck with that!

In my thirty years as a Marine Corps officer, teacher, and administrator, I cannot recall a single evaluation that has impacted my performance as a professional. This is not to say that I have not grown in knowledge and judgment through periodic and meaningful feedback and coaching from my superiors. In fact this is the only feedback that has mattered.

This is what the people at Adobe have discovered. Frequent, ongoing feedback and two-way conversation with employees is much more effective to annual performance evaluations. Sure, both might be even better. But unless anyone out there has figured out how to squeeze more than 24 hours out of a day, this is a difficult charge.

In fact, I have as much chance of demotivating an employee with a poorly worded or awkwardly delivered performance evaluation as I do motivating them to improve their performance, especially if they are already working at a high level.

As a school administrator under the new TLE system, I am continually frustrated by the burdensome and tedious requirements of the new evaluation system. My assistant principals and I each have between 25 and 30 teachers to evaluate yearly. For teachers in a probationary status, this involves over a dozen separate steps: four formal observations, four observation conferences, two evaluation conferences, a PDSA goal review process, and writing numerous comments, push-pins, and personal development plans. The conferences take a minimum of 30 minutes each and often default to a discussion of the evaluation rubric (“are you a three of four here?” do you have an artifact to support this ranking?”), instead of authentic conversations about teaching and learning.

Even with all of this time for each employee, my observation time of any particular teacher is usually around two hours if I am lucky. This is two hours out of nearly 900 hours that the teacher actually teaches each year, or about two-tenths of one percent of their total teaching time. If this represents a valid sampling size, how about we administer state testing to this same percentage?

Moreover, the system requires us to spend equal amounts of time with our superstar teachers as those who need more support and guidance. One of the probationary teachers I evaluate is George Abshire, the 1997 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, who came out of retirement to work with some of our most needy math students. He gains absolutely nothing from my evaluations, and I lose time I could spend with someone else.

Some may ask: Don’t we need evaluations in order to eliminate mediocre employees? Maybe not. It has been my experience that the existence of previous evaluations usually makes it MORE difficult to remove poor employees because of vague comments and the tendency of administrators to give average scores to avoid conflict.

For that reason, we could still have some method of documenting substandard performance and developing improvement plans for employees that need them.

What would we do with the majority of our teachers who work hard each day, exhibit professionalism, engage their students in worthwhile teaching and learning, collaborate with others, and are focused on continuous growth?

The answer: Get out of their way, give feedback and support as needed, and let them teach. In short, as Daniel Pink proposes, give them the defined autonomy to pursue mastery and fulfill their purpose.


I realize of course that much of what I have written here is wishful thinking. But, as Einstein says, “Today’s problems cannot be solved with the same minds that created them.” It’s time for some new thinking; therefore, this will likely require a change in leadership!