Indiana’s teacher evaluation law: some promise, lots of peril

A policy brief released last week by the Center on Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University spells out a number of reasons to be concerned about Indiana’s new teacher-evaluation law.

The law, Senate Enrolled Act 1, requires annual teacher evaluations that rely significantly on student test results. All teachers will be put in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement needed and ineffective. Compensation and tenure will be tied to the evaluations, and teachers in the two lower categories won’t get raises and may be at risk of losing their jobs.

The law requires schools to start implementing the new evaluation and merit-pay system in 2012-13. But as the authors of the CEEP report, Rodney Whiteman, Dingjing Shi and Jonathan Plucker, point out, this won’t be easy, and there are bound to be unintended consequences.

Here are a few of the issues that they highlight:

— Tying teacher evaluations to student performance may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact, there’s not much evidence that you can accurately attribute student test scores, or even improvement in test scores, to the effect of a single teacher. Standardized tests are designed to measure whether students meet grade-level standards, not how much they improve from year to year. And can schools develop tests that measure teacher effectiveness in subjects like art, music and physical education?

Research has shown that students learn best when teachers collaborate and share expertise. But most schools will have a limited amount of money available for raises, and it must all go to teachers rated effective and highly effective. “This creates an indirect competition for compensation and an incentive to out-perform colleagues,” the brief says. “Teachers may begin viewing their materials and techniques as proprietary intellectual property and elect to not share that property with their competitors.”

— Finally – and this may be the biggest issue – where will schools will find the time, resources and expertise to design and implement annual evaluations that are fair and meaningful? SEA 1 is an “unfunded mandate,” the authors say. At a time when most Indiana school districts are pinched for money, they may have pull some of their best teachers out of the classroom to develop and carry out evaluations; either that or hire outside experts, at considerable cost.

The brief concludes, “If done correctly, with sufficient time, finances, and people, changing teacher evaluation can be a powerful reform in public education.”

That’s a mighty big if.

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