A Mistake in the Making: Hungary’s New Teacher Evaluation System

The Hungarian government has given the teacher evaluation system a drastic overhaul. Beginning in September (and even earlier in some pilot schools), barring a last-minute retraction or modification, high school teachers will be ranked in relation to each other. Within a given school, the top 25 percent (according to an elaborate point system, also new) will receive additional pay, on top of the base salary. Some teachers in the middle 50 percent might also qualify for extra pay (if they are above the 70th percentile). The bottom 25 percent receives no additional pay and must complete certain professional development tasks.

This ranking concept will only sour the atmosphere at schools, from what I can see. Teachers who take on extra duties and projects (such as teaching additional classes, mentoring, leading special projects) will be pitted against each other; they will question each other’s motives and competence. When I started teaching here, I was happily shocked by the lack of resentment I felt from other teachers and by the welcome I received from the drama and music teachers, who even invited me, a couple years later, to join the arts “munkaközösség” (working community). It didn’t occur to them to complain that I was stepping on their turf by involving my students in music and theatre; they rejoiced that this was happening.

With the new system, this would change—not immediately, and not with these colleagues, but subtly, over time. By ending up in the top 25 percent, a teacher is ensuring that someone else won’t. But how do you earn those points?

Just as in the U.S., teachers will be rated on such matters as parental contact (which has normally been primarily the purview of the homeroom teacher, the osztályfőnök, not regular subject matter teachers), professional conduct (including online presence outside the classroom—I could be losing points right here), adoption of “new” pedagogical methods, involvement in extracurricular activities and programs, and a host of other matters, including communication with colleagues and the administration, punctuality and general fulfillment of responsibilities, students’ test results, clariand more. Some of the points will be based on self-evaluation: setting goals and determining to what extent they have been met.

Not all the criteria are objectionable; many are what a teacher would strive for anyway, and some are worth keeping in mind. But many lie open to interpretation, and the burden of documentation will add stress to teachers’ lives. Moreover, for many of the criteria, quantity is considered along with quality. This, too, brings burdens; teachers will be under pressure to do more of everything (more meetings, more activities, more phone calls, more, more, more) to rack up the points. Will something like Folyosó (the online literary journal I founded for the students, which takes many hours of my time a semester) be considered “just” one activity? Will teachers be required to document all their meetings and conversations, just as in the U.S.?

The resemblance to certain U.S. teacher evaluation systems must be more than coincidental; I imagine that there are some consultants in the background making considerable money off of this.

I would rather forget about making the top 25 percent and just continue doing what I am doing. But there’s a risk of falling into the bottom 25, which would be not only humiliating, but overwhelming.

I have treasured the tranquility of my school and daily life, which allows me to do my job well and to pursue my interests (literature, music, languages), which ultimately tie back into the classroom. Within the past five years, I have learned Hungarian (not to perfection, but to the point of being able to converse, communicate, read, listen), translated Hungarian poetry and prose, fallen in love with Hungarian alternative music, initiated a Shakespeare festival in collaboration with the public library, traveled with Hungarians to the U.S. for literary events (in 2019 and 2022), and much more—all thanks in part to the tranquility that I found here. The designers of this new system appear not to value such tranquility—in fact, they seem intent on taking it away.

I can only speculate on the reasons, but two possibilities come to mind: first, perhaps the government sees this as an exchange: a higher salary in return for higher accountability (just as in many districts in the U.S.). Second, perhaps the goverment intends this system mainly for new teachers, who, not knowing anything different, will presumably adapt to it. A large cadre of older teachers is soon to retire; perhaps they will leave sooner if put under enough pressure.

Teacher evaluation is a difficult matter no matter what. No system is completely fair. If teachers are paid only according to seniority and degrees, then the question arises: why should a teacher doing the minimum receive as much as one who goes far beyond the call of duty? Beyond that, how do you assign points to such a wide range of pedagogical strengths and styles? To what extent do you ask teachers to adopt specific techniques and tools, and to what extent do you respect their judgement?

In New York City, for instance, there have been instances where excellent teachers did not receive “highly effective” ratings in the area of pedagogy for the simple reason that they led a class discussion (instead of having students lead it themselves). It should never be wrong for a teacher to lead a class discussion; the teacher has perspective that the students do not. From time to time, it is good to have students lead their own discussion—but when a class is reading a complex literary work, for instance, only the teacher knows what questions to ask to draw students further into it. There have also been cases where teachers lost points for not involving technology in a given lesson. But technology should be a means, not an end.

It is the head of the school (the principal) who can set the tone here, guiding teachers while also trusting their judgement. But an overly bureaucratic system takes the principal’s initiative away.

The current teacher evaluation system (under which I was evaluated last year) has its weaknesses too. My evaluation consisted of a long self-evaluation, parent and student surveys, feedback from the principal and colleagues, two observations, and a few other pieces. It all went well—but I can understand the criticism that such an evaluation is weak on evidence. I might give myself a high rating on collaboration with colleagues, for instance, but what if I actually meet with them only once in a while?

Going to the other extreme, though, and requiring so many different activities (and evidence of them) will not lead to better teaching; it will just make our lives busier.

There are those in the U.S. (and here) who would stress that a teacher is an employee, not a thinker. A teacher’s job, according to them, consists of fulfilling duties, not exercising judgement and intellect. But the very same people talk about how students need to be encouraged to think critically, analytically, and creatively. How will they do that, if teachers don’t have room to do the same?

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1 Comment

  1. Andrew James Chandler

     /  March 31, 2023

    Very helpful, thanks. Shared among colleagues


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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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