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December 10, 2015

The future of using student achievement measures to evaluate teachers

With the president signing the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law today the days of the No Child Left Behind Act waivers (NCLB) as well as Race to the Top grants (RTTT) have officially come to an end. The elimination of these programs also ends the ‘incentive’ for states to evaluate teachers based, at least in part, on measures of student achievement. Keep in mind, however, over 40 states currently evaluate teachers partially on their students’ achievement.

Less than a decade ago this was far from the case. Prior to NCLB waivers and RTTT only a small number of districts included student achievement measures when they evaluated their teachers.  In fact, a number of states prohibited using these measures in evaluation as a matter of law.

More recently, NCLB waivers and RTTT grants provided ‘incentives’ to include student achievement measures as a significant portion of how teachers are evaluated. In response, the vast majority of states have made significant changes to their teacher evaluation systems. However, developing these new evaluation systems was no easy task. In fact, most states have just recently fully implemented such systems and some are still in the process of doing so.  So it is far too early to tell what impact these new evaluation systems have had on teachers and student learning.

Now that federal ‘incentives’ have been lifted, the question is will the states stay the course when it comes to evaluating teachers or will they shift gears? Of course, only time will tell but with the pushback against testing in a number of states I’m guessing at least some states will change their evaluation system, especially as it pertains to including student achievement measures.

Yet, even if states pull back on linking teachers’ ratings to student performance, these systems are likely to be significantly better than what states had in place prior to NCLB waivers and RTTT. As discussed in our Trends in Teacher Evaluation report, for decades most evaluation systems were little more than a bureaucratic exercise that failed to recognize either excellence or mediocrity in teaching. This is no longer the case. States have vastly improved their teacher evaluation systems in recent years and not just by including measures of student achievement. Nearly every state has vastly improved the way classroom observations are conducted. Now it’s the norm for teachers to be observed every year–in many cases, multiple times a year—and then provided immediate feedback to inform and improve their instruction. Moreover, nearly every state now evaluates teachers on multiple measures even when tests scores are not used. Such indicators include the quality of their lesson plans, feedback from their students, and the quality of their classroom assignments among others. These measures are then combined to provide a more accurate measure of a teacher’s true effectiveness as well as provide valuable information to help teachers improve their instruction.

States and districts have worked extremely hard over the past several years to design and implement these new teacher evaluation systems so it is unlikely they will be going to back to the old days when teachers were evaluated every couple of years and rarely provided useful information. While including objective measures of student achievement like test scores can be a valuable part of an effective teacher evaluation system, the new evaluation systems even without the student link are much more likely to accurately identify effective teachers as well as provide useful information to improve instruction. And that is good news for all teachers and students. – Jim Hull

Filed under: teachers,Teacher evaluation — Tags: — Jim Hull @ 1:42 pm

October 15, 2015

Schoolwork worth doing

“Ok, students, it’s time to get out your crayons!”

Hearing this never fails to delight kindergarteners in the classroom. But what about in seventh grade social studies, even if colored pencils are substituted for crayons?  Outside of art class, does drawing really represent the kind of work middle-schoolers should be doing to get ready for high school?

Analysts for the Education Trust recently examined the quality of classroom assignments in a half dozen middle schools in order to document the degree to which they were aligned to the Common Core’s English language arts standards. The preliminary results were published last month in the report Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards?.

The Ed Trust team was able to identify assignments that were clearly up to the task. But they also found that these were a fraction of what students are being asked to do on a daily basis. According to the analysis, a surprising few assignments were “aligned with a grade-appropriate standard” – 38 percent to be exact. The 7th grade drawing assignment cited above is an example. And the picture is even worse for students in high-poverty schools (31 percent “grade-appropriate”).

The research team examined both in- and out-of-school assignments given by 92 teachers to students grades six through eight over a two week period. Common Core-ELA standards cross subject areas so assignments were collected from teachers of English, humanities, history/social studies and science. The average number submitted per teachers was 17. Altogether the analysts scored nearly 1,600 assignments on such attributes as “alignment to Common Core,” “centrality of text,” “cognitive challenge” and “motivation and engagement.”

The report authors, Sonja Brookins Santelises and Joan Dabrowski, acknowledge that they did not expect to see 100 percent alignment to the higher-level demands expressed in the standards. Indeed, there is a place in the classroom for the occasional quick check of facts or basic skills practice that will help students use these tools more confidently when applied to more challenging tasks. But Santelises and Dabrowski did hope to see more rigor than they found, as follows:

  • 16 percent of assignments required students to “use a text for citing evidence”;
  • 4 percent required higher-level thinking; in contrast, 85 percent asked for either the recall of information or the application of basic skills;
  • 2 percent met their criteria for “relevance and choice”; and
  • not surprisingly given all this, only 5 percent were scored in the high range of the Ed Trust framework.

For me, reading this report was like déjà vu all over again. In the nineties and early aughts, I worked at the Ed Trust as part of a team that helped teachers in high-poverty schools align their lessons and assignments to state standards. During that time I can’t say how often we saw the “movie poster assignment” as the culminating task following a major unit of study. This assignment asks students to create, to draw, a movie poster on the topic as opposed to writing a paper or otherwise have students show their capacity to extend their thinking about the material. Could such an assignment be given occasionally as a break from a routine of academic heavy lifting? Absolutely. But in the schools we worked in, the movie poster wasn’t the exception. Too often, assignments like it were the routine.

Today, as it was then, low-level assignments are not a teacher-led plot to keep kids illiterate. Teachers in many schools struggle to keep their students engaged while keeping up with overstuffed curricular and testing requirements. The problems are exacerbated when students are performing well below their peers. Teachers in such situations often respond by providing lessons in easy bits with the idea that they will eventually build to higher understanding – what educators call “scaffolding.” (I show an example of a scaffolded math lesson on slides 7-13 in a common core presentation you can find here.)  While the practice is sound, Santelises and Dabrowski documented an over-reliance on scaffolding which rarely led to independent learning.

Nonetheless, the fact that 5 percent of the lessons were complex and high-level is cause for optimism. These teachers clearly know what rigor looks like. In addition, because of the short two-week window, the analysts may well have missed out on major end-of-unit assignments that push students’ thinking to higher levels.

The Ed Trust team is continuing its study, which should tell us more about how typical these findings are. In the meantime, school leaders who want to know how well instruction in their schools and district align to higher standards can check out this implementation guide.

October 1, 2015

Diversifying the teaching force

We know many of the qualities that define “good” teachers: subject matter knowledge, credentials, experience, and impact on learning. But according to a growing body of research, this list is incomplete without also assuring the teaching staff resembles the demographic make up of the students they serve. Let’s just say, we have a long way to go.

Our current public-school enrollment is very close to being majority-minority. In 2011-12, 51 percent of public K-12 students were white down from 59 percent 10 years before. In contrast, 82 percent of their teachers were white (see chart). In American cities, where students of color comprise a two-thirds majority, 71 percent of their teachers were white.  A full three-quarters were female.


Across the country, districts are facing teacher shortages, especially in key areas like special education and mathematics. The additional effort to increase the diversity of their staff may seem like making an already difficult job even harder. In its recent report on the subject, the Albert Shanker Institute acknowledged as much, stating that “our first priority must be to ensure that every student has the benefit of being taught by skilled, knowledgeable and caring teachers – of whatever race and ethnicity.” Nonetheless, they further maintain that diversity “should be a factor, and an important one at that.” This is especially so for the education of minority students.

Among the reasons cited by the Shanker Institute authors is that teachers who share a cultural experience with their students are better able to motivate and inspire them, and are less likely to “confuse cultural difference with cultural or intellectual disadvantage.”  The authors also refer to research suggesting that a demographic match between teachers and students improves students’ academic performance.

Evidence for this latter statement received a big boost earlier this year by researchers Anna Egalite, Brain Kisida and Marcus Winters who analyzed the relationship of what they call “own-race teachers” to student achievement. The authors had access to a huge database enabling them to link 92,000 Florida teachers to 3 million students over a seven year period. They tracked the performance of individual students while in classrooms with different teachers by race and ethnicity over several grades, and compared the impact of same-race to different-race assignments. In this way they have produced perhaps the most rigorous study to date of the effect of minority teachers on minority student achievement.

Here’s what they found: students perform higher in math and reading when they are assigned to teachers of the same race. The overall results are small, but statistically significant. There are differences by race, however. The performance of black, white and Asian students were significantly positive in math, but the effects were highest for black and Asian students.

Hispanic students were the exception. For this group of students, having an Hispanic teacher actually produced a negative effect. The researchers conjectured that this finding could be due to limitations in the data. They explain, the Florida Hispanic population is quite large and culturally diverse, including self-described Caribbeans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans. Grouping them into one ethnicity could therefore be masking important differences among them.

As virtually every researcher does, Egalite and her team call for more research to better understand the relationship between teachers and students by race. But for us lay people, the evidence is pretty clear that school districts should pay attention to recruiting a teaching force that is demographically representative of the community alongside their professional qualities.


Filed under: Achievement Gaps,teachers,Demographics — Tags: , — Patte Barth @ 12:42 pm

March 18, 2015

Put teacher data in the hands of those who know how to use It

While every parent wants as much information as possible to do what is best for their child, it doesn’t mean that parents have the right to their child’s teacher’s evaluation data. That information should only be used by administrators to support the continuous improvement of their teachers and make more informed decisions on which teachers are best suited to teach which students. As I argue in Trends in Teacher Evaluations, this is the best way teacher evaluation systems can improve the effectiveness of all teachers. On the other hand, providing individual teacher evaluation data to parents, as one parent in Virginia is going to court over, will likely lead to a pitchfork mentality where parents will demand their child be placed in the highest rated teacher’s class and that low performing teachers be fired without any context on what the evaluation results actually mean.

Such rush to judgments on evaluating talent happens all too often by those only looking at the short-term gains. Sports provides the most vivid examples of this phenomena. One of the best examples is when the Boston Red Sox brought up Dustin Pedroia to play second base in 2007. But Pedroia’s numbers were downright awful the first month of the season and fans wanted him replaced. However, the manager kept playing him despite the bad numbers because his experience showed him that Padroia would someday become a very good player. And the manager was right; Padroia went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2007 and the American League’s MVP award the next. This illustrates how data is most effective in the hands of those who not only know how to use the data correctly but will use the data for the best possible outcomes in the long-term.

This isn’t to say that parents shouldn’t have any information about the quality of those teaching their children. They certainly should. The question is what information should be provided to parents. This is a question states and districts are still struggling with. Some states provide aggregate teacher effectiveness data by school while others notify parents that their child is being taught by a teacher rated as ineffective for multiple years in a row. There is no right answer to what information parents should have but it is clear just handing parents a teacher’s evaluation data would do more harm than good.

A far more effective strategy, would be for parents, teachers and policymakers to come together to find the best solution for all involved. Together they can come to an agreement on what not only is best for individual students in the short-term but what will allow for what is best for all students in the long-term.  – Jim Hull

Filed under: teachers,Data,Teacher evaluation — Tags: , — Jim Hull @ 11:29 am

December 19, 2014

The ROI of five ed reforms, according to Forbes

Many have tried to quantify the value of education— in fact, even we did in our video, Is it Worth It? But calculating what we get versus what we spend on public education is far from an easy exercise, as there are so many variables and value judgments that come into play.

Enter Forbes magazine, which attempted to determine what would happen if education policymakers put their money where their mouth is in five key areas: implementing the Common Core State Standards, strengthening teacher effectiveness and principal development, and expanding early education and blended learning.

Each comes with a hefty price tag that taken together would cost a cool $6.2 trillion over a 20 year period or $310 billion annually. In return, Forbes (with assistance from respected Stanford economist Eric Hanushek) predicts the U.S. would see its gross domestic product increase by some $225 trillion over the life of that generation’s professional career.

Where the initial outlay would come from— apparently hedge funds, inheritances and venture capital— is another story. What caught my attention about this study appeared to be a credible attempt to affix real dollars and cents to top education reforms and the benefits our country would reap from it.  Even if it’s hypothetical, a nearly 37 percent return on five major education investments is not something to ignore … though, apparently we have.

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