Why Evaluating Teachers Is Really Hard to Do

May 9, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Peter Cunningham

I recently had dinner with two teachers who told me that in their combined 38 years of teaching they have had exactly three meaningful feedback sessions with their principals. The absence of useful teacher evaluations has been among the greatest disappointments of their otherwise deeply satisfying careers. They still love teaching and currently work in one of the top-performing schools in Chicago. Teachers, especially good ones, crave useful feedback that can help them improve their craft yet most states and districts did not require it or even attempt it until a few years ago. Worse yet, most principals simply do not have the skills or the time to do it. A new report, Grading the Graders: A Report on Teacher Evaluation Reform in Public Education, shows that [pullquote]thoughtfully, efficiently and fairly evaluating teachers is really hard to do.[/pullquote] The report’s author, Thomas Toch, founding director of the Center on the Future of American Education, highlights places that have had the most success, such as Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and Tennessee and also cites survey research showing that many teachers feel they get real value from the evaluation process when it includes chances to improve their work. The report candidly chronicles the rushed effort to introduce teacher evaluation into school systems during the last seven years through federal grants and incentives. At a time when states were implementing new standards, rewriting curriculum and designing new assessments, evaluation was perhaps too big a lift. Still, Toch argues, the recent reforms have amounted to a big step in the right direction in many places—putting the teaching profession on a better path. Toch concedes the limitations of newly-developed measures of student achievement in teacher evaluations, such as value-added metrics, but insists the information is useful when properly weighted with other factors, such as classroom observations and student surveys. He also points out the challenge of including test scores in evaluations for all teachers when only 30 percent of teachers teach tested grades and subjects, which, under federal law, are grades three through eight and 11th in reading and math. [pullquote]He acknowledges that gym teachers may not want to be evaluated based on reading scores.[/pullquote] In some cases, states and districts have added more tests in other subjects in order to tie evaluations to objective measures rather than purely subjective measures. The result of this locally-driven over-testing, combined with an excessive focus on test prep in schools that fear the consequences of low scores, is a backlash against testing from parents and a small but potent movement to opt out of tests. Another problem with evaluation is that an effort intended to help teachers improve was experienced by some at the school level as a punitive method of weeding out bad teachers. In truth, the number of teachers dismissed for performance reasons remains tiny but teachers unions pushed the “teacher-bashing” narrative relentlessly. They abandoned their support for the policy, and poisoned the public discussion, amplifying every flaw and grievance and making already difficult work even harder. Today, all but a handful of states currently have stronger evaluation policies on the books but the federal government can no longer offer grants or incentives to advance this work. It remains to be seen whether states will stay the course. Nevertheless, hundreds of large school districts and many charter school networks are making serious attempts to implement evaluation policies. Interestingly, pioneers in the field of evaluation, like Charlotte Danielson and TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), an organization founded by Michelle Rhee, who also introduced evaluation into the D.C. public schools when she served as chancellor of the district, have recognized that [pullquote position="right"]simplicity is the solution to the complex work of evaluating teachers.[/pullquote] They have redesigned their frameworks around fewer metrics making it easier for principals to implement and for teachers to embrace. Toch provides an extensive list of concrete recommendations around evaluation that can both improve their accuracy and usefulness and help foster teacher buy-in. For example, he recommends using multiple years of data to guard against anomalies, keeping the percentage of evaluation tied to tests below a third, and focusing more observations on probationary teachers than on tenured teachers. He closes with a prophetic quote from legendary teachers union leader Albert Shanker. Speaking at a union convention in 1985, Shanker said of teachers:
We don’t have the right to be called professionals unless we are prepared honestly to decide what constitutes competence in our profession and what constitutes incompetence and apply those definitions to ourselves and our colleagues.
Toch, himself, puts it even more simply: Performance matters.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors, a DC-based education policy, research and communications firm. He serves on several non-profit boards, including Oakland-based Great Schools, which provides school quality information to parents through a national online platform, The Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school, Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing, Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards, and Foolproofme.com, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Peter founded Cunningham Communications, serving public, private and nonprofit clients, worked for political consultant David Axelrod, and was a senior advisor and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. A native New Yorker, Peter began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University. He is married to artist Jackie Kazarian, and they have two adult children who are proud graduates of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter joined the Education Post board in 2018 after stepping down as the organization's Executive Director.  Meet our board →

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