When I present my research on teacher evaluation reforms, I’m often asked whether, at the end of the day, these reforms were a good or bad thing. This is a fair question—and one that is especially important to grapple with given that state policymakers are currently deciding on whether to refine or reject these systems under ESSA. For all the nuanced research and mixed findings that concern teacher evaluation reforms and how teachers’ unions have shaped these reforms on the ground, what is the end result of the considerable time, money, and effort we have invested?
Teacher evaluation emerged as a federal education reform priority under President Obama, advanced via the Race to the Top grant competition and state waivers to No Child Left Behind. By 2016, 44 states had passed legislation mandating major teacher evaluation reforms. While the new evaluation systems differ across states, nearly all systems share a common set of features: 1) the incorporation of multiple measures of teacher performance including test-based performance measures such as value-added measures or student growth percentiles; 2) the use of multiple performance rating categories; and 3) the use of evaluation ratings to inform high-stakes personnel decisions.
On the whole, evaluation reforms have fallen far short of reformers’ ambitious goals and promises. The evaluation process has hardly become an engine of professional development in most districts; few schools recognize, yet alone dismiss, low-performing teachers, while teachers identified as high-performing are lucky to receive a small merit pay bonus, if any recognition at all. But this is not the question on the table.
Instead, we want to know whether the new evaluation systems have had a net positive or negative effect on our nation’s schools. This is particularly challenging given the variable experiences with evaluation reforms across individual districts and states. Here is how I think about the calculus of this question:
• Growing national recognition of the importance of teacher quality
• A shift (albeit limited) from the belief that all teachers are equally effective to one that recognizes variation in teacher quality
• The widespread adoption of rigorous observational rubrics for evaluating instructional practice that provide clear standards and a common language for discussing high-quality instruction
• New administrative data from student information systems that, linked to teacher human resource systems, allow administrators and researchers to answer a range of important questions about teacher effectiveness
• More and better (albeit still imperfect) teacher performance metrics to inform important human capital decisions made by administrators
• Increased attention to the inequitable access to highly effective teachers across racial and socio-economic lines
• Increased turnover among less effective teachers
• The loss of principals’ time to formal evaluation processes and paperwork that (often) have little value
• The erosion of trust between (many) teachers and administrators necessary for supporting ongoing professional growth
• An increased focus on individual performance at the potential cost of collective efforts and school organizational practices
• Decreased interest among would-be teachers for entering the profession under the new teacher evaluation accountability regime
• The costs associated with teacher turnover, especially in hard-to-staff schools
From my perspective, teacher evaluation reforms net a modest positive effect nationally. While my judgment is informed by a growing body of scholarship, it is also subjective, imprecise, and colored by my hope that the negative consequences can be addressed productively going forward. Arriving at the sum of these consequences depends critically on the subjective value one places on each. I would be wary of any confident claims that these reforms were objectively a net positive or net negative.
Another way to think about this question is to ask: Would schools, teachers, and students be better off if states had not implemented evaluation reforms at all? I suspect not. California schools did not leave other states in their wake even though California was one of the few states that did not adopt even a watered down version of teacher evaluation reforms state-wide.
Did the rushed and contentious rollout of teacher evaluation reforms poison the well for getting evaluation right? Probably so in some districts, at least in the near future.
Might states have been better off investing their time, money, and effort into an entirely different approach towards improving teacher quality? It is possible, but answering this question at the national level is at best a speculative endeavor.
As policymakers continue to rethink teacher evaluation systems under ESSA, we need to fully embrace this conversation about the merits and drawbacks of teacher evaluation reforms. I’m open to changing my opinion—what have I missed?
— Matthew Kraft
Matthew Kraft is assistant professor of education at Brown University.
This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up
Last updated March 16, 2018