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The Teacher Evaluation Confronts the Future

By Michael McShane — August 19, 2014 5 min read
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In the past decade, two overarching trends have had an outsize effect on America’s education landscape. The first is the shift in teacher-evaluation policy whereby states are creating new models for measuring the effectiveness of teachers based on standardized-test scores and other objective measures of student outcomes. The second is how entrepreneurial school leaders are rethinking the design and organization of schools and leveraging instructional technology.

Examples of each abound.

Teacher-quality reform was a major component of President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s original 2009 Race to the Top program—responsible for 138 of the 500 total points that were available to states that applied for the grants—and the more recent No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

States across the country have developed alternative pathways into the teaching profession, worked to advance their university-based teacher-preparation programs, and created mechanisms to link student test scores and standardized observations to teacher evaluations.

At the same time, charter networks like Rocketship and Carpe Diem are using technology, enabling teachers to reach more students without sacrificing effectiveness. Schools like Touchstone Education in Newark, N.J., and Ingenuity Prep in Washington use what the education consulting group Public Impact calls “multi-classroom leadership,” in which a teacher-leader oversees the instructional practice of a team of teachers.

There is a problem here: Much of the teacher-quality agenda assumes a particular arrangement of education. It hinges upon the ability to assign a particular set of students to a particular teacher as the students progress through a particular curriculum in order to measure that teacher’s impact on those students’ learning. Schools that use a team-teaching model, for example, do not fit neatly into objective evaluations, nor do schools that lean upon technology to deliver large swaths of instruction.

If you don’t think there is tension developing between the standardized teacher evaluation and the innovative instructional models that are emerging across the country, let me give you a historical analogy.

On July 4, 1912, a Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad Co. mail train was headed to Buffalo, N.Y., from Hoboken, N.J. At 5:21 a.m., it crashed into a passenger train that was parked on the tracks outside of East Corning, N.Y. What is known as the East Corning Disaster killed 39 people and injured 88.

There is a problem here: Much of the teacher-quality agenda assumes a particular arrangement of education."

The death and injury toll was particularly high because several of the passenger cars were made of wood. When the heavy mail train slammed into them, they simply blew apart.

In response, the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission issued a series of regulations to prevent future disasters. One key provision stood out. Specifically, it stated that “the substitution of all steel equipment for wooden equipment in high-speed passenger service shall be required at the earliest practical date.”

Seems reasonable, right?

Well, it depends on how a regulator interprets “high-speed passenger service.”

Remember, the plane in which Orville and Wilbur Wright made their maiden voyage in 1903 at Kitty Hawk was made of wood. In fact, most of the early commercial airplanes, like the de Havilland Dragon, which operated well into the 1940’s, were predominantly made of wood.

Requiring that all airplanes be made of heavy steel could have grounded (pardon the pun) the early aviation industry, and today it might take us days to get across the United States instead of hours. Luckily for us, the angels of better judgment prevented early regulators from blindly applying train regulations to airplanes.

Innovative schools have not always had such good fortune.

In many states, the observational component of a teacher’s evaluation is based on Charlotte Danielson’s “Framework for Teaching,” which assumes a particular classroom organization. It includes metrics such as “setting instructional outcomes” that do not apply to a school that uses technology to determine a student’s individual coursework. Much of the framework’s classroom-management rating presents a similar problem. For example, what does “respect and rapport” look like in an online chat room? How does a teacher “silently and subtly monitor student behavior” if that teacher is not even in the same room? The assessment tool (originally published almost a decade ago) does not say.

To be clear, this is not a knock against Ms. Danielson’s framework. It is a caution that applying it to a school that is organized differently could be problematic.

The same dissonance exists when it comes to test-score-based evaluation metrics.

Value-added models require a teacher of record who “owns” a set of students for an instructional year. But what happens when schools that allow students to progress at their own rate cover more than a year’s material? Should those students take more than one test? If schools use team-teaching, who is held accountable? If a majority of instruction comes through a computer, with teachers in the role of coaches, how do we know what value they added if students are at different places in the scope and sequence of instruction?

Education policymakers could learn from their predecessors in the transportation sector. In the first years of flight, regulators were able to pursue a dual strategy. They were able to improve railroads while fostering aviation. Today, trains are faster, safer, and more comfortable than they were a century ago.

The same can hold true for schools. Reformers can continue to push for improvement in traditionally organized and operated schools so long as the laws, rules, and regulations that drive those improvements don’t stifle new learning models.

Giving innovators room to grow and build new learning and teaching models is not an indictment of the existing teacher-quality policy. It is a warning that regulations designed to ensure safety and quality in one domain might be harmful when applied to another. Pursued carefully, tailored reforms can help traditional schools keep chugging down the track while allowing new schools to take flight.

A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as Planes, Trains, and Teacher Evaluation

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