We know that the quality of teaching a student receives is the single most important predictor of student performance, yet measuring and managing that quality has proved an elusive goal. Policymakers and decisionmakers around the country are embracing the challenge of improving teaching effectiveness like never before. But much of the current discussion focuses too narrowly on using evaluation tools that rely heavily on student test scores to fire underperforming teachers and to pay bonuses to high-scoring teachers. The threat of dismissal or the promise of a few thousand bonus dollars for meeting narrow quantitative objectives is unlikely to inspire outstanding performance or attract the nation’s best and brightest. Instead, imagine a school system where each student experiences individual teachers as part of an integrated team that collectively brings a breadth of skills, knowledge, and experience to bear for their students and one another. No longer are teachers alone in classrooms struggling to meet a wide range of student needs. Instead, teachers are working together, providing all students with carefully monitored learning time, in groups of varying composition throughout the day depending on the project at hand.
The redesign of teacher-evaluation systems can build the foundation to transform the profession for the 21st century. But doing so requires that we design systems and surrounding structures that include but go beyond test scores, help teachers and principals identify strategies for professional improvement, and encourage teacher collaboration and teaming.
In this system, an “evaluation” is not a score, narrowly defined, based on one or two high-stakes tests and a handful of observations, but a detailed picture of each teacher’s contributions. This expanded evaluation would include not only the performance of the students, but also teachers’ contributions in working with colleagues and students, and an understanding of their strengths and areas for further development. Evaluators would take into account key factors that support or impede teachers’ effectiveness, including their course loads, the stability of their student populations, the mix of teachers’ skills on their teams, and the types of professional development they have received. And while this evaluation would influence each teacher’s compensation and tenure, its more immediate purpose would be to provide critical data to the teacher, his or her principal, and the district. Such data would inform a wide range of other human-capital decisions, including job and team assignment, support, professional development, coaching needs, and opportunities for additional responsibilities and promotion. Such a system would provide the foundation for a teaching profession that attracts and retains the best candidates through emphasizing team collaboration, rewarding contributions within and beyond the classroom, and establishing interventions and consequences for poor performance.
The redesign of teacher-evaluation systems can build the foundation to transform the profession for the 21st century.
This rich information makes it easier to identify underperformers and offer them opportunities to improve and to receive support for their efforts, as well as to dismiss them if they don’t improve. But it can do so much more. Armed with such information, district and school leaders can rethink how they deploy and manage their teaching staffs in five critical areas:
• Create great teaching teams
School leaders can use robust evaluation to assemble teaching teams—focused around shared students or content—that collectively possess the skills and knowledge to meet student needs. A principal might choose to team each new teacher with one of his high-performing veterans; to include a special-education-certified teacher on each team; to match the strongest teachers with the neediest students. This team approach allows a mix of teacher expertise, roles, and compensation levels, without needing all members of the team to be experts at everything or paid at the highest level.
Deliberate team composition allows principals to be much more focused in filling needs when positions open. Instead of hiring a generic math teacher, a principal may wish to recruit one with technology expertise, but who doesn’t need to be experienced in teaching struggling students because he or she will be supported by other expert teachers on the team. To manage their schools this way, school leaders need to have the flexibility and authority to hire the right teachers for their students. Teachers need a clear understanding of specific job requirements. Hiring should be by mutual agreement that there is a good fit, and not dictated solely by seniority rules or other negotiated constraints.
• Empower those teams
Teams of teachers need regularly scheduled time away from their daily classroom responsibilities to review student-achievement data and to adjust their instruction in response. Districts rarely implement this continuous-improvement approach fully because of the perceived expense of freeing teachers from in-class duties and providing the needed expert support. However, effective collaborative planning has been proven to increase student achievement in ways that traditional investments in teacher professional development have not. Districts need to ensure that teacher teams share collaborative planning time, have access to ongoing student-assessment data, and receive coaching in using the data to adjust instruction from expert peer coaches or lead teachers as needed. With rich evaluation data that links to compensation, districts can ensure that each team has the needed expertise, and that dollars to pay for this expertise are part of teacher compensation.
• Build a better pipeline
With better information about the specific skills that schools need, district human-resource departments can work proactively to attract stronger candidates. By tracking which hiring sources provide the strongest and weakest candidates over time, they can expand hiring from their best sources, and partner with those institutions to build the skills that schools will need. They can also reduce or stop hiring from sources that provide low-quality candidates. In addition, they should investigate nontraditional hiring sources and alternative-certification programs.
• Help every teacher achieve his or her potential
Using expanded and accessible data, school leaders can help each teacher maximize growth throughout his or her career. Principals can give strong performers opportunities to contribute (and earn) more through taking on such critical assignments as teaching transition grades or struggling students, or coaching new or developing teachers. Instead of reimbursing teachers for taking courses of their own choosing, districts can target that investment in areas identified for development.
• Reward contribution
Traditional teacher-compensation structures provide automatic annual increases for cost of living and additional years of experience and educational attainment, regardless of teacher effectiveness or contribution. On average, these elements account for more than 80 percent of teacher-compensation spending, while performance and increased responsibility account for less than 5 percent. But adding performance bonuses based narrowly on test scores of students in their classrooms is not the answer either. Instead, teachers’ compensation should also increase when teachers leverage their skills across more or needier students or to support other teachers to improve instruction. Compensation should increase when teachers bring scarce or additional needed expertise to their classrooms, including certification in hard-to-staff areas such as science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM subjects) or special education.
The current momentum to create a more effective teacher evaluation process is exciting and long overdue. Done right and used well, this process can serve as the foundation for redefining the profession in a way that values and respects teachers’ individual and collective contributions. Achieving this vision will require controversial changes in district structure, state law, principal responsibilities, and collective bargaining agreements. If the struggle results in better teaching for our students and better working conditions for our teachers, it will be well worth the effort. Let’s not waste this opportunity by focusing exclusively on firing inadequate teachers and paying performance bonuses.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Moving Beyond Test Scores