Improving Teacher Evaluation in 2015

In September, right here on this blog, we reflected on the progress that’s been made with teacher evaluation since we published The Widget Effect five years ago. In terms of policy, that progress has been laudable: As of 2013, 35 states and the District of Columbia now require that student outcomes be a significant component of measuring teacher effectiveness. Early research in places like Washington, D.C. suggests that more rigorous, reliable evaluation systems have real benefits for teachers and students, and educators are reporting richer, more actionable conversations about improving instruction.  

But when we look at how evaluation has fared from an implementation standpoint—what’s changed on the ground—the picture isn’t as rosy. Ratings inflation, inadequate training and norming, and low quality feedback are still major issues for many states. In most districts, nearly all teachers are still rated in the top two effectiveness categories—even in schools where outcomes for kids are still not nearly where they need to be.

The need to improve the quality of education we provide our young people is still very urgent. Too many students still struggle to graduate, and too many of those that do aren’t ready for college or a career. The life outcomes of our students are not improving, and we are still not doing enough in schools to counteract generational poverty.

Overwhelmingly positive evaluation results teachers continue to receive aren’t helping teachers, either. The primary purpose of evaluation should be to lay out clear performance standards and provide fair, accurate feedback on performance against those standards to help teachers improve. Our best teachers want that feedback. When virtually all teachers are told they don’t need to improve, no one wins.

Although the design of new evaluation systems provides the framework for success—and represents a big first step – districts still have work to do to successfully differentiate teacher performance and provide teachers the meaningful feedback that should be the goal of any evaluation system worth its salt.

We’ve seen firsthand how hard this is. Based on what we’ve seen work well (and not so well), here are some strategies we think all districts should strive for to get the most out of teacher evaluation:

Clarify expectations district-wide, and make sure rubrics are built to match that vision. The shift in practice from old systems of evaluation, where teachers were simply rated satisfactory, to new, more complex systems, is a tremendous change for both teachers and principals. It is important for districts to communicate the value of a rigorous evaluation system, both in terms of the ongoing feedback teachers will receive to improve their practice, and the data it offers to help make important decisions about instruction and talent. Too often, districts downplay the magnitude of the change, and don’t clearly articulate the positive results they hope to garner from teachers and students. They should be transparent about both.

Meanwhile, district leaders should take a step back and look at the rubrics they used during their initial evaluation overhaul, to make sure they are still in line with the district’s values and vision for the evaluation system. If they’re not—or if they’re not as clear or concise as they could be—it’s worth the hard work of making changes and providing the training and support to implement those changes.

Use multiple evaluators and provide them ongoing training. To rely on principals and school administrators alone to conduct classroom observations is a recipe for disaster; there’s no way principals who, in most places, have only had to do one or two cursory classroom observations per teacher per year, will have the capacity to provide quality feedback to all their teachers every year. Building up a team of evaluators that includes objective observers from outside the school—including administrators from other schools or master educators on leave from classroom duties—will help ensure that every teacher can get regular feedback. Having each teacher observed by multiple evaluators has also been found to increase the reliability of classroom observations.

Take advantage of technology to support evaluation systems and effectively analyze data. Giving evaluators access to technology that tracks their notes and ratings frees them up to focus on observing and giving feedback to teachers, rather than cumbersome paperwork. Districts can also capitalize on the growing ease of capturing and sharing video footage to document best practices and areas for improvement.

Investing in the right resources to support data analysis is also important. Strong data systems have the potential to give school leaders access to information about teacher performance over time. But these systems should present the data in the most accessible, user-friendly ways possible, so administrators can use the information to adjust instruction in real-time.

Align principal evaluations with those for teachers. One essential way to hold principals accountable for teacher performance is to build effective implementation of teacher evaluation systems into school leader evaluations. Too often, principal evaluation is regarded as somehow less important or essential to school improvement than teacher evaluation. Principal evaluation design should align closely with teacher evaluation design—whereas teacher evaluation systems define excellent teaching, principal evaluation systems should make providing students with consistently excellent teaching across the school a principal’s highest priority. Principal managers should receive the same rigorous training as principals to ensure that they’re normed to evaluation rubrics and have the skills to differentiate principal performance.

As state legislatures return in 2015 and new state leaders take office, there will inevitably be conversations about whether teacher evaluation has failed to live up to its promise. Though new evaluation systems are already an improvement over the disastrous Widget Effect-era systems, they inarguably haven’t come close to reaching their potential for helping to improve the quality of education we provide our students. Now that policy has changed, it is the time for districts to double down on improving evaluation on the ground. Doing the hard work now—of getting evaluators trained and technology and resources in place—will pay huge dividends for teachers and students in the long run.  

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.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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