When President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act this past December, he called it a “Christmas miracle"—the happy ending to a serious bipartisan effort to reframe federal education policy. Many observers echoed the president’s optimism by heralding ESSA’s passage as the dawn of a new era and pinning their hopes and their agendas to the opportunity the new law provides. However, with more flexibility for states to determine how their school systems work, there is both opportunity and risk. Following Congress’ bipartisan example of adopting the legislation, state leaders must now find a middle path that considers evidence and experience to correct for prior policy missteps, while maintaining the fundamental building blocks for improving student outcomes.
And when it comes to improving student outcomes, teachers are key actors; supporting and developing teacher talent must be a top priority for state leaders. Because ESSA returns autonomy over teacher evaluation to the states, states have an important opportunity to make course corrections while continuing the commitment to teacher effectiveness. For all states, the goal should be to use this new autonomy to refocus on the purpose of evaluation systems—helping teachers better support students—and refine their systems to deliver on that purpose.
In my current position as the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program, I’m able to have honest and open conversations with state leaders across the country—those who are immersed in the daily work of building, implementing, and sustaining high-quality education policies. I have seen firsthand their deep commitment to doing what’s best for teachers and students. But let’s be clear: States face an onslaught of competing priorities and challenges that threaten to throw them off course. And in all the buzz around ESSA, there has been little substantive discussion about how state leaders can overcome these challenges to improve their systems—and support their hardworking teachers.
Teacher evaluation and support is an area where a focus on improvement is especially crucial. For a recent report, “Teacher Evaluation and Support Systems: A Roadmap for Improvement,” my colleagues and I engaged with state leaders to identify 10 strategies to continuously improve teacher evaluation, with a focus on student learning. These state leaders tell us that three strategies hold particular promise for improving evaluation and support systems:
1. Ensure that evaluators are trained and certified to focus on professional growth, not just ratings. Most teachers experience evaluation primarily through interactions with classroom observers, so it is important for these observers to be equipped not only to rate accurately but also to support teachers in advancing their practice. Evaluators should be trained and certified to provide meaningful, constructive, evidence-based feedback and to use evaluation results to design professional-learning activities that lift teachers’ practice. This simple change can help refocus evaluation on growth and can boost teacher trust in, and engagement with, the entire system.
In all of the buzz around ESSA, there has been little substantive discussion about how state leaders can overcome these challenges to improve their systems."
Some states have taken steps to ensure that observers are prepared to drive growth. Evaluators in Tennessee, for example, must demonstrate that they can facilitate an effective post-observation conference and also develop a detailed improvement plan—which is judged by an external expert from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching—before they are certified to evaluate teachers. In Massachusetts, effective feedback-delivery skills are now baked into the certification and licensure process for principals to help ensure that all principals can give teachers meaningful guidance.
2. Allow districts some flexibility in accounting for student learning. Much of the controversy around teacher evaluation has been spurred by debate about how to measure student learning and incorporate it into teachers’ evaluations. Unfortunately, attempts to include test scores coincided with the introduction of new tests in most states, raising legitimate concerns about fairness and timing. In this contentious climate, some states suspended or reduced the use of student-growth measures in teacher evaluations. But fair, accurate evaluation systems draw on multiple data sources—including student-learning data—and so states must confront this challenge if they want to continuously improve their approaches.
Kentucky has made it a policy to collect three years of evidence on a teacher’s performance before determining a summative rating. The information comes from multiple sources, including teachers’ self-reflections and professional-growth plans, student-achievement data, principal observations, and student surveys, as well as other sources determined by districts. Districts in Colorado must base 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student-growth data, but they have flexibility in deciding which student assessments to use. According to Katy Anthes of the Colorado Department of Education, this provides districts “a measure that’s meaningful for them based on their context and their kids.”
3. Test and ensure the integrity of the evaluation system. Efforts to improve an evaluation system cannot succeed without having a solid quality-assurance process in place. This can involve sending teams to learn from schools with strong results and to monitor and coach schools with shakier results. States also can analyze data to find broad correlations between teacher ratings and student growth across schools and districts. Other measures, such as attendance data or staff surveys, may also corroborate evaluation findings—or raise concerns. Massachusetts developed a dashboard that allows district leaders to analyze each district’s implementation of the evaluation process, as well as teacher-performance levels, to help them identify both bright spots and potential problems. States can also build trust in the system by asking teachers directly how evaluation is working for them and publicly sharing the feedback and actions taken in response.
States and districts are entering a new era in education policy, and they face the important—but not impossible—task of focusing on improvement. Just as teacher evaluation calls for feedback that improves teacher practice, states need to learn what’s working and what’s not to improve policy. By clarifying their vision for education and learning from best practices around the country, leaders can ensure that their policies and systems—including those around evaluation—move in the right direction under ESSA, supporting educators and students on their paths to success.