A Helpful Nudge on Teacher Evaluation

Over at Flypaper yesterday, Andy Smarick said “good riddance” to the federal government’s push for better teacher evaluation systems, which will likely come to an end whenever ESEA is reauthorized. He argues, essentially, that evaluation reform is so complex and so wrapped up in the particular context of individual school districts that there’s no productive way for the feds to intervene on the issue.

If the federal government really tried to prescribe a teacher evaluation system for every state, down to details like which measures to use for which teachers or exactly how to calculate ratings, it surely would be a massive and unproductive overreach.

The thing is, that hasn’t actually been the federal government’s role in evaluation reform. Instead, the Education Department has mostly posed improving teacher evaluations as a big challenge to states, with some high-level principles: What you’re doing now isn’t working. You can’t actually distinguish your best teachers from your average ones from your truly ineffective ones. And you’re ignoring the most important part of a teacher’s job, which is to make sure students are actually learning. Go fix it. You can figure out exactly how to fix it—just go fix it.

That’s exactly the sort of leadership we need from the federal government on important policy issues that affect every state. Public education in this country is built on a consensus that the states have everything covered, but we’ve seen overwhelming evidence throughout history that, simply left to their own devices, they actually don’t. They certainly didn’t have things covered in the era of de jure segregation. More recently, they didn’t have things covered when they turned a blind eye toward unconscionable racial achievement gaps in the days before NCLB. And they didn’t have things covered when they spent decades treating teachers like interchangeable parts through evaluations and other policies.

In all these cases, we relied on the federal government to ensure that our national values around equity of opportunity and basic fairness are being embodied in state policy, throwing a spotlight on serious problems and creating a sense of urgency among the states to do better.

And states are doing better on teacher evaluation today. Most are doing something basic that was not being done even five years ago—attempting to create systems that accurately differentiate their teachers’ performance. Few have succeeded in reversing the widget effect on the first attempt, but even systems that aren’t yet producing accurate ratings are pushing schools in the right direction. For example, principals are spending more of their time in classrooms: observing teachers, thinking about how to help them improve, and beginning to grapple with big, important questions like what effective teaching actually looks like. Just because the process is hard and complicated doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

To the extent that states have fallen down on evaluation reform, it hasn’t been because of federal intervention. They’ve struggled with this work because designing and implementing evaluation systems that actually do what they’re supposed to do—give teachers fair and honest feedback on their instruction—is every bit as hard as Andy says. And let’s not forget that states and districts are also battling institutional inertia and organized opposition along the way, which is making hard work that much harder.

Unlike Andy, though, I’m confident we’re closer to solving this problem today because the federal government decided to give states a nudge. The most likely alternative to federal intervention on teacher evaluations isn’t that states would’ve figured things out on their own. It’s that they wouldn’t have even bothered to try. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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