It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all that’s been written about the topic of teacher evaluation lately, but I’m giving it the old college try today by highlighting two recent reports.
Despite different emphases, they agree on a key point: Federal policymakers initially focused, implicitly or explicitly, on “consequences” before putting their emphasis on professional development, which had the effect of alienating teachers and making it harder for them to buy into the reforms. But they both also suggest that the new evaluation systems either hold a lot of promise, or are nevertheless worth pursuing.
First up comes “Grading the Graders,” from Tom Toch at Georgetown University’s Center for the Future of American Education, released at the Education Writers Association conference May 1.
Of the two reports, Toch’s is the more optimistic, written in part to counter what he says is the predominant narrative that teacher-evaluation reform has failed, leading to its being all but absent from the recent Every Student Succeeds Act legislation.
Certainly, Toch writes, the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan pushed forcefully on the matter, and the focus on test scores as a measure came with technical problems. But there are also things to celebrate, he argues.
"[T]he deployment of new evaluation systems has led to the establishment of clearer teaching standards in many states and school systems. It has forced school leaders to prioritize classrooms over cafeterias and custodians (exposing how poorly prepared many principals are to be instructional leaders) and sparked conversations about good teaching that often simply didn’t happen in the past in many schools,” Toch writes.
As leaders get a better handle on new systems, they can use them to improve staffing and create more roles and responsibilities for teachers, strengthening the teaching force, he concludes. Tennessee, for example, now pairs teachers who score well on certain skills with lower-scoring teachers, and that approach seems to be bearing fruit.
Next up: The New America Foundation’s “Beyond Ratings” report, which was released in March. In the paper, analysts Melissa Tooley and Kaylan Connally conclude that research, and the results of the last few years of evaluation scores, indicate that the vast majority of teachers aren’t high flyers or terrible; they’re somewhere in the middle.
So evaluations systems need to be much more focused on how to help teachers in this large middle area get better.
They reserve some tough words for the Education Department. It threatened to yank states’ waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act by not adhering to timelines and other requirements, the authors note, but “no state was denied a waiver because it had not sufficiently planned for how to use these new systems to drive educator improvement.”
Improving the systems will mean dealing with nitty-gritty changes, like really doubling down to make sure that observers are well trained and accurate in how they observe teacher practice, and that “LEA and school leaders follow through, by providing them with training, tools, and resources to inform teacher development, and by monitoring local efforts and outcomes,” the authors write.
There’s a lot more in both reports, so check them both out.
But above all else, these papers try to make it clear that evaluation is only going to be as good as the quality of the observations and feedback that are offered, and the time and attention that both administrators and teachers put into it. The new systems pose significant logistical challenges—as well as opportunities to really improve instruction for the better.
The bottom line: Teacher evaluation isn’t something you can do purely for compliance’s sake, on a Friday afternoon, or on the cheap—as had been the practice for so long.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.