Behind the Headline: A New Era for the Battle Over Teacher Evaluations

By 03/14/2016

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On Top of the News
A New Era for the Battle Over Teacher Evaluations
The Atlantic | 3/8/2016

Behind the Headline
When Fancy New Teacher-Evaluation Systems Don’t Make a Difference
Education Next blog | 3/9/19

Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in WashingtonIn the Atlantic, Tom Toch looks at the evolution of teacher evaluation systems over the past decade and considers what might come next.

As he reminds us, the new education law signed by President Obama late last year largely takes the federal government out of the business of pressing states and school districts to ratchet up their teacher evaluation systems.

Two powerful forces at opposite ends of the political spectrum had attacked the president’s strategy—teacher unions wanting to end the new scrutiny of their members and Tea Party members targeting the Obama plan as part of a larger anti-Washington campaign. As a result, the new Every Student Succeeds Act terminates the Obama administration’s incentives for states and school districts to introduce tougher teacher-evaluation systems. And the law effectively bans the U.S. Secretary of Education from promoting teacher-performance measurements in the future.

Toch argues that the earlier policy was moving things in the right direction.

The teacher unions have dismissed the Obama strategy as ineffective, as more hurtful than helpful to the teaching profession. But over three dozen states have embraced more meaningful teacher-measurement systems under the Obama incentives, combining features like clearer performance standards, multiple classroom observations, student-achievement results and, increasingly, student surveys. And state and local studies, teacher surveys, and other evidence reveals that many of the new systems have been much more beneficial than the union narrative would suggest.

But on the Education Next blog, Rick Hess challenges this interpretation. He points readers to a new study that finds that new teacher evaluation systems are not making much of a difference.

Hess argues that

the enormous effort and expense invested in these teacher-evaluation reforms have thus far achieved next to nothing. The reason is a straightforward failure of follow through. Legislators can change evaluation policies but cannot force principals to apply them rigorously. And it turns out that, even after policies were changed, principals still were not sure what poor teaching looked like, still did not want to upset their staffs, and still did not think giving a negative evaluation was worth the ensuing tension and hassle—especially given contractual complications and doubts that superintendents would back up personnel actions against low-rated teachers.

— Education Next

Comment on this article
  • Thomas Toch says:

    Thanks for sharing my Atlantic piece with your readers.
    I read with interest Rick’s suggestion that the teacher-evaluation reform movement hasn’t made much of a difference, and I tracked down the study Rick suggests supports his conclusion. It found that most teachers have earned satisfactory ratings under new, more comprehensive state teacher-evaluation systems.

    Alas, I don’t think the study supports Rick’s contention. The study highlights weaknesses in the reforms that need to be addressed. But its findings are more positive than Rick suggests, especially when compared to conditions before the onset of teacher-evaluation reforms. And the new teacher-measurement systems have produced benefits in areas the report doesn’t address.

    The reports authors, Matthew Kraft of Brown University and Allison Gilmour of Vanderbilt, studied teacher ratings in roughly half of the more than three dozen states with new evaluation systems and found that a median of 2.7 percent of teachers were rated unsatisfactory, even though principals they surveyed in one large urban school system suggested that there were more low performing teachers than that in their schools.

    One reason for the high percentage of satisfactory ratings is that many states and school districts rely heavily on principals alone to rate the teachers in their buildings. Many principals are insufficiently trained to evaluate teachers reliably (even though it’s a key part of their jobs) and tend to rate their teachers higher than outside observers do to avoid difficult conversations, a problem called “building bias.” The amount to time required to do more rigorous ratings and the paperwork required to back up the removal of poor performers also leads many principals to go easy on teachers.

    Knowing who’s doing a good job in the classroom and who isn’t is important to remediating or removing weak teachers and rewarding high achievers. You can’t help people improve if you don’t know what needs improving.

    But the rate of unsatisfactory ratings that Kraft and Gilmour found is about three times the rate before the introduction of the new rating systems, when evaluations were infrequent and typically amounted to nothing more than quick classroom visits by principals wielding simplistic checklists that stressed comportment over quality instruction and student learning. The New Teacher Project (now TNTP) studied Chicago’s teacher ratings between 2003 and 2006 and found that 87 percent of the city’s 600 public schools, including 69 the city had declared “educationally bankrupt, didn’t issue a single “unsatisfactory” report during that period.

    Kraft and Gilmour concluded that the rating results in their study represented “a meaningful increase” in the identification of under-performers since the pre-reform era. And in places with the best new evaluation systems, the numbers are substantially higher.

    Take the District of Columbia, where standards are clear and high and teachers are rated multiple times by both building administrators and outside observers, and where observation scores are combined with student-achievement results and other measures. Last year, only 80 percent of the city’s teachers were rated effective or highly effective under Washington’s comprehensive, seven-year-old rating system. Another 19 percent were placed on two levels of probation. And 1 percent was fired.

    But even in states and school districts with high percentages of satisfactory ratings, studies, surveys, and interviews suggest that new evaluation systems have paid dividends. Ratings aren’t the only or even necessarily the best way to gauge the reform movement’s contributions.

    The new evaluation systems have forced principals to prioritize classrooms over cafeterias and custodians (and have exposed how poorly prepared many principals are to be instructional leaders) and they have sparked conversations about effective teaching that often simply didn’t happen in the past in many schools—developments that teachers say makes their work more appealing.

    New information flowing from the upgraded measurement systems designs is helping education leaders make smarter staffing decisions. The District of Columbia’s school system uses the results from its new evaluation system to identify teacher-training institutions that produce the city’s highest-rated teachers and is prioritizing those providers in its recruitment of new teachers.

    School districts increasingly are going beyond identifying leaders and laggards, using evaluation results to help teachers improve their performance. And the best of the new evaluation systems are supplying the foundation for new, performance-based teaching roles like team leaders, mentors, and peer coaches.

    There’s certainly plenty of work to do to improve the quality of the new evaluation systems, improvements that are likely to bring the differences in teacher performance into sharper focus.

    But it’s also increasingly clear that the new generation of teacher evaluations have the potential to strengthen instruction, make teaching more attractive work, and raise student achievement on a wide scale—if states and school districts stay the course on reform.

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