Teaching Profession Opinion

Rapid Change in Teacher Evaluation

By Justin Baeder — April 29, 2011 2 min read
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As states start to roll out changes in teacher evaluation policy, the landscape for educators is changing rapidly. Race to the Top was remarkably effective in incentivizing states to restructure their teacher evaluation systems, and we’re starting to see how these changes are being worked out at the local level.

In a new series of posts, I’ll examine state and local changes to teacher (and principal) evaluation policy, and how these mandated changes are working themselves out at the local level.

Let’s take as an example Virginia’s recent move to make 40% of teacher evaluations based on student achievement. Most states went with 50% to maximize their chances of receiving RttT funding, but Virginia’s law seems otherwise typical—the state Board of Education also developed evaluation criteria and a performance pay system tied to student test scores.

Districts have the option of moving to the new system immediately as part of the pilot, or waiting until next year to start. Most states are on similar timelines, which means the grunt work of developing new evaluation systems is well underway, and we’re moving through the first steps of pilot programs in many states.

The strange thing, to me, is that no one seems to know how these changes will play out. No one really knows what it means for “50%" of a teacher’s evaluation to be “based on” measures of “student achievement.” I use quotation marks because all of these concepts are ill-defined in most of the teacher evaluation systems currently in place around the country.

What does “50%" of a 4-level judgment mean? If you can be unsatisfactory, approaching standard, at standard, or exceeding standard (or however you label the categories of performance), some type of points system will need to accompany the four-level scale, because you can’t take a percentage of something that’s not a number. Doable, but new territory for almost everyone.

“Basing” an evaluation on student achievement is another sensible-sounding phrase that’s actually quite complex to implement. Does this mean that a calculated score will determine the rating, according to some type of formula, or that it will merely inform a supervisor’s judgment?

Finally, much is made of using “multiple measures” of student achievement, which almost always includes some of type of standardized test. If other measures are used, they tend to also be standardized in some way, since the whole point of such systems is to eliminate any question about whether teachers are accurately measuring and honestly reporting student learning. In most districts, there are no teacher-independent measures of student achievement, at least for younger students. And of course, many teachers work in non-tested subjects or in roles that don’t permit clear separation of the effects of different staff members who work with the same students.

The exceedingly strange thing is that this is all a done deal. The laws have been signed. The provisions of these laws are already written into many recently bargained teacher contracts. Yet we don’t know how to do this, whether it will “work,” or if we will like the way it works.

It’s an exciting time to be alive. Hang on and stay tuned.

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