Some New Teacher Evaluation Systems Do Make a Difference

When Education Next paired my recent article, “A New Era for the Battle over Teacher Evaluations,” as a “Behind the Headlines” item with “When Fancy New Teacher-Evaluation Systems Don’t Make a Difference,” by Rick Hess, 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 report’s 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 of 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 proportion of unsatisfactory ratings that Kraft and Gilmour found is about three times the rate before the introduction of the new grading 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 17 percent were placed on two levels of probation. And 3 percent were 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.

– Thomas Toch

Thomas Toch is an education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

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