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Getting Honest About the Tensions and Pitfalls in Teacher Evaluation Policies

By Sara Mead — September 26, 2012 2 min read

Today the American Enterprise Institute is releasing a new paper that I wrote with my colleagues Andrew Rotherham and Rachael Brown looking at some of the tensions in the current policy shift towards new teacher evaluation systems--and advising policymakers on how to avoid some potential pitfalls implicit in those tensions.

Obviously, Andy, Rachael and I are no foes of the move towards new systems of teacher evaluation: We believe the previous system--which ignored student learning completely, failed to recognize excellence or give teachers meaningful feedback to improve, and rated 99+% of teachers satisfactory or better--was clearly a broken one. We also believe that new evaluation systems, when done well, have the potential not only to identify ineffective teachers who would be better suited to other careers, but also to give due credit to excellent teachers who should be rewarded and retained, and to help all teachers improve their performance.

But we’re also very cognizant of the pitfalls here. In the rush to gain public and political support for new evaluation systems, proponents of these systems have too often over-promised or ignored real limitations, tensions, and trade-offs in both the design of these systems and the technologies (including value-added metrics, data systems, and observational rubrics) that underlie them. As I wrote recently, there’s a temptation among some reformers to treat value-added measures and evaluation systems as a sort of “magical black box” that, if we just use it, will tell us the real, honest truth about teacher performance. But the reality is a lot more complicated than that. And in failing to acknowledge that, reformers run the risk of jeopardizing the sustainability and success of the very systems they seek to promote. We need to move forward with new teacher evaluation systems--but we need to do so with humility, the recognition that no one knows all the answers, and plenty of room for flexibility and revision over time as we learn from the successes and challenges of various models.

Andy, Rachael, and I outline four key tensions that have been overlooked in current debates over teacher evaluation: 1) Tensions between centralized control and flexibility, 2) Tensions about the role of teacher evaluation in an evolving overall ecosystem where an increasing number of teachers cannot be directly linked to the test scores of a specific group of students in a specific subject, 3) Tensions about how to prioritize different purposes (accountability, personnel decisions, professional development) for which evaluation results may be used, and 4) Tensions about what it really means to evaluate teachers as professionals. We also offer recommendations for policymakers seeking to negotiate and balance these tensions in evolving teacher evaluation systems. Check out the whole thing here.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.