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Education Funding Opinion

Teacher Evaluation Is Stuck in the Past

By Rachael E. Gabriel & Sarah L. Woulfin — May 15, 2018 3 min read
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When President Barack Obama announced his Race to the Top competition in the summer of 2009, states across the country submitted plans for reforming standards, data use, and teacher quality to turn around their lowest-performing schools. Most states, competing for about $4 billion in federal funding in the first year, elected to significantly revise and ramp up their teacher-evaluation policies.

Nearly a decade later, with the launch of ESSA, it might be easy to assume that the pressures of RTT-era teacher evaluation have lifted. However, these evaluation systems and procedures persist after nearly a decade of implementation, influencing the work of teachers, principals, and district administrators.

It’s important to ask whether such policies are working for those they most affect—teachers and students. States must consider: Is their teacher evaluation improving teaching and learning or getting in the way of the very work it was designed to support?

We would argue it is too often the latter. Under RTT, teacher-evaluation policies were designed using economic theories of motivation and compensation and statistical growth tools such as value-added measurement. Evaluation policies based on principles of economics and corporate management have failed to take into account the complex and personalized work of educating students.

While evaluation aims to address teacher performance and quality, what we don’t see is acknowledgement of teacher voice and choice in how policies affect their work. We need to create learning-focused evaluation policies for teachers that enable both students’ and teachers’ growth and align with the needs of schools, students, and communities.

A learning-focused teacher-evaluation policy would create the organizational and social conditions teachers need to thrive.”

It’s clear to most educators that the current crop of teacher-evaluation systems is flawed, overwrought, and sometimes just plain broken. Detailed case studies demonstrate that some states now spend millions of dollars on contracts with data-management companies and statistical consulting firms. Many states and districts make similar investments despite the fact that researchers and policymakers question the wisdom of value-added measurement within high-stakes teacher evaluations.

There is now an entire industry devoted to the evaluation of teaching and the management of student data. There are online professional-development video databases and classroom-walkthrough apps for school leaders—which have not demonstrated a positive effect on instruction. But all of them have inflated the edu-business marketplace.

When leaders are stuck in the slog of implementation, it’s easy to forget about the organizational structures that tug educators in different directions. Researchers and reformers end up ignoring important differences between states and districts when explaining whether a policy was or was not successful in a given context. Yet, real policy is something teachers create every day by engaging with tools, routines, and ideas in their classrooms.

If educators were given opportunities to have real conversations about instruction and fuel data-driven decisions and collaboration, teacher evaluation might be more successful for everyone. Researchers and policymakers must ask educators directly how they have worked within the confines of evaluation rubrics and classroom observations to create instructional improvement for students. Only then will policymakers understand how to marry evaluation standards with the real work taking place in classrooms.

A learning-focused teacher-evaluation policy would create the organizational and social conditions teachers need to thrive. During goal-setting with administrators, teachers would work together to write challenging, yet attainable, goals for themselves and their students. They would also have professional-development opportunities to learn about different types of student-progress measurement tools to refine what works best. And in feedback meetings with school leaders, teachers would have space to reflect upon areas of their success and weakness. In turn, principals would devote time and energy to framing evaluation as an opportunity to learn about—rather than judge—teaching.

To begin the transition toward this kind of evaluation, state and district administrators must shift the balance of resources away from measuring and sorting teachers into categories. School leaders must focus on subject-specific questions about teaching and learning, rather than applying a generic set of indicators. And instead of boiling teachers’ work down to a rating, leaders must share observations that help teachers extend what they do well and identify where they can grow.

Only when we involve teachers in the process of evaluation policymaking will we come up with a system that supports and develops the teaching expertise students deserve.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as Race to the Top Is Over. Why Haven’t We Moved On?

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