Beyond the pink slip: Teacher evaluation isn’t just for firings

It’s not ground-shattering to say that the conventional teacher evaluation system is broken.  This isn’t just an argument made by education reformers and parents, many teachers agree with this point as well.  They cite the haphazard, subjective nature of evaluations, which research suggests does little to improve instruction or lead to the removal of subpar teachers.

In response to calls for better systems to evaluate teachers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded the Measures of Effective Teaching project (MET).  This group has undertaken a three year study in seven school districts to analyze the effectiveness of certain measures of excellent teaching, specifically student standardized test scores, student surveys, and observations.  However, beyond the much debated question about whether these systems can really measure effective teaching, I’d like to ask a different, perhaps more important question—what should be the primary purpose of these systems?

National conversations about teacher evaluation have mainly focused on getting bad teachers out of the classroom, and there is no doubt that there are some teachers teaching today that shouldn’t be.  However, the notion that America’s schools are brimming with teachers who show movies and check emails all class period is, simply put, a myth.  This fact is certainly confirmed by the MET study.  The study trained observers and had those observers watch 7,491 videos of instruction by 1,333 teachers from six socio-economically and geographically diverse districts.  The observers were tested on their knowledge of the observation rubrics, and they were retested when observing to ensure the scores they were giving were calibrated.  After all those observations, the study found that “overall observed practice is overwhelmingly in the mid-range of performance as defined by the instrument.”  In other words, there were few outstanding teachers (as defined by the observation instrument) but also few really weak teachers (as defined by the observation instrument).

This finding should give us pause to really think about our goals in rolling out revamped teacher evaluation systems.  The writers of the MET study suggest that one can accurately use a combination of observations, student surveys, and standardized test data to identify exceptionally ineffective teachers, but then what?  Even if we fire the teachers who are exceptionally ineffective, that may only be a very small percentage of teachers in the classroom.  Will that alone drastically improve student achievement?

I think that looking at teacher evaluations as only a method to weed out the weak is exceptionally shortsighted and may represent a huge investment of money that gets America little bang for its buck.  Instead, we need to think about how teacher evaluations can be used to improve the teaching of teachers.  Bill Gates, in a recent op-ed piece written for CNN, acknowledges this fact, arguing that “the vast majority of teachers get zero feedback on how to improve” while they work “in isolation and have been asked to improve with little or no feedback.”  As a former public school teacher, my own experiences absolutely confirm this fact.

However, as districts rush to revamp their evaluation programs to align with the demands of Race to the Top and state policies, it’s questionable whether or not feedback to teachers is really a priority.  The Center for American Progress recently released a study exploring teacher perceptions of an urban district’s new teacher evaluation system.  The district rolled out the evaluation system in part to compete for Race to the Top funds.  At the beginning of the year, teachers set two student learning objective goals with their administrator.  Throughout the school year, teachers were observed by an administrator who ranked them on a scale of 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (exemplary).  Low scores and high scores had to be confirmed by an outside evaluator, a move to ensure fairness and objectivity on the part of the observer, and evidence of student achievement which aligned with the teacher’s initial goals was evaluated at the end of the year to see if students really grew academically.

This evaluation system did result in an increase in firings, but it didn’t result in much feedback to the teachers who weren’t fired about how to improve their practice.  After interviewing a large sample of teachers in the district, most said that the new system had no impact on their pedagogy.  Only half of the teachers said any of the feedback was helpful; some even said they got no feedback.  At the end of the 2010-2012 school year, the district had spent countless sums of money developing an evaluation system, hiring outside evaluators, and implementing the system, but fired only 34 teachers in a district employing 1600 teachers (2% of its teaching force).  What about the other 98% of teachers in the district?  According to those teachers, all of this time and money resulted in little to no change in their teaching.  That’s a problem.

In the public dialogue about how to improve America’s classrooms, there’s often a simplistic notion that firing a teacher and replacing him or her is a no-brainer solution to our educational dilemma.  While new evaluation systems should identify exceptionally ineffective teachers, that alone is not enough.  They have to provide feedback for improvement for teachers who aren’t fired.  Such a focus certainly brings into light new questions about who is giving the feedback, the nature of the feedback, the qualities of good instruction, and how to coach teachers toward good instruction; however, those are the questions we really need to be asking.

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