Since TNTP’s groundbreaking report, The Widget Effect, was released in 2009, nearly every state has made dramatic changes to the way teachers are evaluated. In that report the authors found less than 1 percent of teachers were rated below proficient, while nearly all other teachers were rated simply as proficient or satisfactory. Just a small proportion of teachers were recognized for being exceptional. Such results didn’t pass the sniff test. As anyone who has ever stepped foot in a classroom knows, there are a number of exceptional teachers as well as a number who just aren’t making the grade. Under previous teacher evaluation systems, few of these teachers were ever identified.
Despite the dramatic changes in evaluation, such as including measures of student achievement, not much has changed, according to a recent report aptly titled Revisiting the Widget Effect. Less than 3 percent of teachers are being rated below proficient. While this is more than 3 times as many teachers than found in the original Widget Effect, it is still an extremely small number.
Of course, it could be claimed that this is because there are so few ineffective teachers and not due to a failure of how teachers are evaluated. Which is a legitimate argument. In fact, this was a question the authors wanted to examine themselves by asking principals in a sample of schools how many of their teachers they felt were below proficient prior to conducting the new evaluation systems. What they found was a huge disconnect between how many teachers principals perceived to be less than proficient (27 percent) and how many teachers actually were rated below proficient (2.7 percent).
So why are so few teachers identified below proficient? Did states expend valuable time and resources simply to rate a few more teachers as ineffective? While the findings from this report are sobering, it provides important insights for policymakers in making changes to the current systems and understanding how the system is really being used at the ground level. What was fascinating is what principals said about why they didn’t rate some teachers as below proficient. For example, some principals reported not assigning a below proficient rating to some teachers who were on the borderline because they felt their time was better spent focusing on providing extra supports to the lowest performing teachers. Other principals stated they avoided rating teachers below proficient who showed potential to be effective teachers in the future. While technically these teachers should have received poor ratings, these are actions good supervisors should take to build an effective staff.
Yet, these are examples of why it is imperative to include objective measures of effectiveness in any teacher evaluation system. States now have more flexibility in designing their own evaluation systems with the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They should include objective measures such as student test scores in their revised evaluations. Doing so still provides an opportunity for evaluators, such as the principals in this report, to focus their time and resources on the teachers that need them most. At the same time it lessens the chances evaluators will simply identify nearly all teachers as proficient because it is just easier to do so just as it was prior to 2009 in most states.
What states need to do now is find a proper balance between objective measures and trusting the professional judgment of evaluators, especially principals, who know what is best for the teachers and the students in that school. As the report shows, states have not yet found that right balance. Keep in mind, however, these new teacher evaluation systems are still quite new and will take some time to make the adjustments needed to have a significant positive impact on both teachers and students. – Jim Hull