A while back I sat through a professional learning community (PLC) meeting where the other science teachers and I listened to a YouTube lecturer discussing strategies of "highly-effective teachers." I was struck by that phrase, "highly effective." What makes these teachers so effective? What does learning look like in their classrooms? I was curious, so I did a little research on "effective" and "highly-effective" teachers in Kentucky, where I live and teach. As it turns out, I’m probably one of them—but this isn't me patting myself on the back for a job well done. Apparently,
more than 90 percent of Kentucky teachers are "effective," according to the Kentucky Department of Education. That was bewildering to me. How can more than 90 percent of teachers in the Bluegrass State be considered "effective" when less than half of our elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading? It’s not just here, either. As former Commissioner of Education Terry Holiday put it, "What we know is that our numbers are pretty reflective of what we are seeing nationwide." In
Rhode Island, 98 percent of teachers are rated as "effective" or "highly effective." In New Jersey,
only 0.2 percent of teachers were rated "ineffective." All things considered, these ratings just don’t add up with what we’re seeing from students.
Here’s What’s Happening
While evaluations vary among different districts and states, the general format often involves observations by principals and occasionally district administrators. In a lot of cases, evaluations boil down to an administrator coming in for one lesson, describing what he or she sees in the instruction, and using that evidence to formulate a rating (like "partially effective," "effective" or "highly effective") for the teacher. It has been suggested that administrators
take some of the fault for inflated ratings. In many cases, principals who are aware of their ineffective teachers avoid giving them bad evaluations for fear of harming their relationship. I see their intentions, but that’s not how performance reviews work in any other job. Why should we accept that in teaching? Even further, I think we also have to consider the deeper, structural flaws of our teacher evaluation systems. There is no system that can accurately assess the depth and breadth of a teacher’s skills through a 45-minute observation, and the fact that many of them still attempt to do just that is the source of the inflation issue. Our evaluations aren’t assessing teachers’ consistent effectiveness over a school year; they’re assessing teachers’ effectiveness in a predetermined class period. Imagine if we treated our students like that. Not every student is going to pull straight A’s, but just about anyone can get their act together for a single class period each year.
Here’s Why It Matters
These inflated ratings are definitely unfair to students, who deserve a quality education and great teachers who can provide that. Research suggests that
teachers are the biggest school-related influence on students’ academic performance, so we really can’t afford to just mail it in when it comes to judging our teachers’ effectiveness. After all, if teachers aren’t growing in their teaching, how can we expect students to grow in their learning? And at the end of the day, it’s not fair to teachers either. If you’re an excellent teacher with high expectations and solid test scores, you deserve a higher rating than the teacher down the hall who’s playing YouTube videos and coasting his way to retirement. For teachers who are trying their best but find that something isn’t quite clicking, a revamped evaluation system may give administrators opportunities to be proactive with feedback and additional coaching. After all, this should be the purpose of teacher evaluations to begin with: to help administrators gauge how well their teachers are teaching and how well their students are learning, and to inform them of where improvements can be made. And ultimately, if a teacher is truly "ineffective," it doesn’t do anyone a favor to pretend otherwise. Our students are too important for us to protect teachers who aren’t doing their jobs. I say that not only as a teacher, but as someone who cares if our students are learning. Effective teachers are the most important factor, but only if we’re identifying them correctly.
Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. ...