While teacher evaluations haven’t garnered as much media attention as the Common Core, in the education world it has been nearly as controversial. And just like the Common Core there are a number of myths about teacher evaluations that impede important discussions on how evaluations can best be used to improve student performance. Even this insightful EdWeek essay by a Philadelphia high school math teacher included some popular myths such as:
Value-added systems provide precise percentile rankings of teachers
While value-added models certainly can provide percentile rankings of teachers this is typically not the case. The objective of most value-added measures is not to create rankings—which wouldn’t be very precise—but to determine if a teacher is more or less effective than an average teacher. Value-added measures cannot, should not, and typically are not used to rank teachers from best to worst in any teacher evaluation system.
The impact of a given teacher on student performance is too small to accurately quantify
Because there are a number of factors besides teachers that impact students’ test scores, this is exactly the reason why value-added measures should be used. It is the only quantifiable measure that even attempts to isolate the impact of the teacher from other factors that influence student achievement. As this video shows, teachers have a tremendous impact on the academic success of their students.
The differences between schools are too great to accurately quantify
It is true that large differences between schools have an impact on teacher effectiveness which is why high quality value-added models are designed to minimize the impact of such differences. A good value-added model will compare teachers within the same school or similar schools to control for the differences between schools. These controls are not perfect but they provide a more accurate assessment of how a teacher would perform in a typical school.
Teachers are blindly fired due to flawed data that doesn’t provide context
While the other three myths had some nuggets of truth, this one is totally untrue. As I found in my Trends in Teacher Evaluation report, no state relies solely on value-added (or any one measure of student achievement) for more than half of a teacher’s overall evaluation. Even in states where half of a teacher’s evaluation is based on measures of student achievement, most of these states require that multiple measures of student achievement be used, such as student learning objectives, formative assessments and teacher developed exams.
Furthermore, in just about every state evaluation system, the lowest-performing teachers are provided additional professional development, mentoring, or other assistance to help improve their performance. Only if the teacher fails to improve after multiple years of low performance do they become eligible to be fired. And in most states the district still has the final say on whether a teacher is fired or not. So while teacher evaluation systems are used to identify low-performing teachers, it is still up to district leaders in most states to determine what to do with that information. – Jim Hull
In just the past few years just about every state has revamped how their teachers are evaluated. In 2010 the vast majority of teachers were evaluated by being observed for 45 minutes every couple years. Now, most teachers are evaluated annually based on multiple measures of their effectiveness. Although these new comprehensive evaluation systems have the opportunity to significantly impact the overall quality of our nation’s teachers, a new report from Bellwether Education Partners shows that they are still in need of improvement.
While these new evaluation systems are superior to previous evaluation systems, the report points out there is still room for improvement and provide five major findings with lessons for policymakers:
- Districts are starting to differentiate between poor, fair, and great educator performance, rather than treating all teachers as interchangeable widgets.
- Schools are using higher-quality classroom observation rubrics to provide teachers with better, timelier feedback.
- Despite state policy changes, many districts still don’t factor student growth into teacher evaluation ratings.
- Districts have wide discretion even under “statewide” evaluation systems—meaning that evaluation systems within the same state may look very different from one another.
- Districts continue to ignore performance when making decisions about teacher hiring, compensation, tenure, and dismissal.
As you can see “district” is explicitly mentioned in four of the five lessons and the fifth lesson about classroom observations typically falls under the domain of districts as well. This pretty much means the success or failure of these new evaluation systems depends in large part on our nation’s school boards as they are the policymakers at the district level. As the report points out, even in states that mandate the use of a statewide evaluation system school districts have significant discretion over how their teachers are evaluated.
As I argue in our report Trends in Teacher Evaluations it is imperative that districts have flexibility in how they evaluate their teachers. And it is good to see that this is the case, as the Bellwether report stated, “Evaluation reform has not meant the end of local discretion.”
While flexibility is necessary, districts also need support too. Few districts have the resources and expertise to implement an accurate and effective teacher evaluation system on their own. Districts need support from their states to help them align these new evaluation systems to the unique needs of their district.
While responsibility for designing teacher evaluation systems was originally placed on states, this new report clearly shows that these new teacher evaluation systems will only be successful if school boards are provided the resources not only to implement these evaluation systems but also to provide professional development opportunities that are aligned with the results of each teacher’s evaluation. Without proper support for districts, teacher evaluations are unlikely to have much of an impact on the quality of our nation’s teachers. – Jim Hull
Critics of using student test scores to evaluate teachers often point to research that shows there is a limitation to using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Due to such limitations, critics argue, student test scores shouldn’t be used to evaluate teachers. Critics typically go on to argue, if teachers are to be evaluated they should be evaluated based on how well they teach by conducting classroom observations. The problem, however, is this argument is based on the assumption that classroom observations are a more accurate measure of a teacher’s true effectiveness.
To this end, researchers at the American Institutes of Research (AIR) recently attempted to determine how accurate classroom observations were at measuring a teacher’s effectiveness. What they found is contrary to popular belief. In fact, classroom observations are not better at evaluating teacher effectiveness than using student test scores—when used within quality value-added models.
Now, this doesn’t mean classroom observations shouldn’t be used to evaluate teachers. In fact, it is critical, as they not only provide information on the quality of a teacher’s instruction but they also provide valuable feedback to teachers about the strengths and weaknesses of their instructional practices which test score can’t provide. However, it is not only important to measure how well a teacher teaches, it is just as important to determine what impact they have on their students as well. Just as in baseball, a player may have the most technically sound swing but if he can’t hit the ball they’re not going to remain on the team for very long.
This is why teachers must and are being evaluated on multiple measures, not just test scores or classroom observations. As I laid out in Building a Better Evaluation System, to accurately evaluate the effectiveness of teachers their evaluation should be based on multiple measures such as student test scores, classroom observations or other measures. No single measure, whether classroom observations or test scores, can possibly provide a full and accurate picture of the quality of the instruction a teacher provides. By incorporating multiple measures into a comprehensive teacher evaluation program, districts can not only evaluate the quality of teachers, but more importantly identify those areas where teachers can improve.
While neither test scores nor classroom observations are perfect measures of teacher quality when used in isolation, when combined they work together to provide a valuable tool in evaluating and supporting our nation’s teachers. – Jim Hull
Teacher tenure has been a hot topic lately, thanks to the Vergara decision a couple weeks ago in California that found the state’s teacher tenure laws were unconstitutional. As I wrote at the time, the decision is unlikely to spur a wave of similar lawsuits across the country, in large part, because many states have or are in the process of revising their tenure laws to incorporate measures of teacher effectiveness when granting tenure—-unlike in California. Many critics of teacher tenure hailed the decision believing it will now be easier to remove ineffective teachers.
However, simply removing ineffective teachers will not positively impact student achievement if those teachers aren’t replaced by more effective teachers. Recent reports from the CALDER Center at the American Institutes of Research (AIR) shed an all too important light on this question. One such report on New York City found teachers were only slightly more likely to be denied tenure after the city revamped their tenure process following the 2008-09 school year—an increase from a 2 to 3 percent denial rate. Yet, the rate at which teachers were approved for tenure declined dramatically because many more teachers had their probationary period extended instead of having their tenure denied or approved. Prior to the tenure reforms, 94 percent of eligible teachers had their tenure approved. Following the tenure reforms, that rate dipped to just 56 percent.
While New York City’s new tenure law did not force ineffective teachers to leave the classroom, many chose to leave on their own. The CALDER report found teachers who had their probationary period extended were 50 percent more likely to transfer to another school and 66 percent more likely to exit the system compared with teachers in the same school who were approved for tenure.
While critics of teacher tenure would hold this finding up as a success of tenure reform, it would in fact be a failure if ineffective teachers simply replaced the departing ones. Luckily for the students this is not what has happened in New York City. The teachers who had their probationary period extended and then left the school were on-average less effective than the teachers who replaced them in terms of both value-added scores and principal ratings. And the differences in effectiveness was fairly substantial as well.
If these trends continue students in New York City will be much less likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher as less effective teachers leave the profession while being replaced by more effective teachers. As previous research has shown, this can have a substantial impact on student achievement but such an impact will not happen over night. As effectiveness data comes in from states across the country that have implemented more accurate teacher evaluation systems, it is clear there isn’t a large proportion of consistently ineffective teachers that should be removed from the classroom. In fact, the vast majority of teachers are quite good so the focus should be on improving the performance of all teachers. Such focus will likely have a significant impact on student achievement as well. Yet, removing consistently ineffective teachers shouldn’t be ignored either. Even if just a small proportion of ineffective teachers left the profession each year and are replaced by more effective teachers, over time the impact would compound, such that students 10 years from now would be much less likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher than a student today.
Reforming teacher tenure laws and creating more accurate teacher evaluation systems have the potential to improve the overall effectiveness of teachers– if done correctly– but such impacts will not happen overnight. It will take time to make a significant impact on the overall effective of our teachers but it will likely have a tremendous impact on the achievement of those students who are just entering our public schools. – Jim Hull
Last week’s Vergara decision, where a California judge ruled the state’s teacher tenure law was unconstitutional sent shock waves across the education world. Debates simmered over what the decision would mean for teacher tenure in other states. The big question being asked: Is this the beginning of the end of tenure for teacher’s nationwide?
Time will only tell but it is unlikely teacher tenure will be going away on a mass scale anytime soon. That’s because California has long had some of the most lenient tenure requirements in the country. It was this low bar for obtaining tenure that the judge cited in his decision, which found the state’s teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the state constitution and violated their civil rights. Even so, this low bar for tenure may still have passed constitutional muster if they weren’t so closely tied to key personnel decisions such as determining which teachers could be laid off and the ability to dismiss ineffective teachers, which the plaintiffs claimed disproportionately impacted disadvantaged students.
If this decision had happened five years ago I would have predicted a larger ripple effect. However, as our Trends in Teacher Evaluations report found, a number of states have already made the changes to their laws that the Vergara decision found unconstitutional. For instance, 15 states now recommend or require that the results of a teacher’s evaluation—which include measures of student achievement– be included in determining whether a teacher is granted tenure. Moreover, 32 states allow districts to use teacher evaluation results to dismiss low-performing teachers as well. Making such personnel decisions, at least in part, on the basis of teacher evaluation results was almost unheard of just five years ago but now it is almost the norm. This wasn’t the case in California where the state has lagged behind nearly every other state in implementing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that incorporates measures of student achievement and then enables districts to use those results to make more informed personnel decisions.
With most states in the process of updating their tenure laws it is unlikely the Vergara verdict will elicit a wave of similar court cases. These new teacher evaluation systems are still in the infancy stage in most states and more time is needed to determine how accurate these systems are and how they can best be used to make personnel decisions like granting tenure. As the Trends in Teacher Evaluations report found no two states evaluate teachers the same way, so there is no example yet on how to best evaluate teachers. So while it appears that teacher tenure took a couple steps back in California, it may actually be the case that it will push California forward to catch up to nearly every other state that now uses teacher evaluation results to make personnel decisions like granting tenure. – Jim Hull
Correction July 9, 2014: This entry previously referred to “passing constitutional mustard.” We meant “constitutional muster.” The EDifier was obviously thinking ahead to our 4th of July hot dog instead of reflecting on our youth in Henry VIII’s army.