Teacher evaluation flap is much ado about not so much

It’s a problem with being a legislator. You pass a law, and you expect everyone will fall in line. And sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

Case in point: Indiana’s teacher evaluations. Results were released last week, and they weren’t what some lawmakers had in mind when they mandated that all teachers be evaluated annually and rated highly effective, effective, needs improvement or ineffective.

Of the teachers who were rated – and quite a few weren’t, either because their districts have multi-year union contracts that supersede the law or for other reasons – over 97 percent were rated highly effective or effective.

Rep. Bob Behning, who sponsored the 2011 legislation in the House, told Chalkbeat Indiana the results showed the system wasn’t working. “We may have let there be too much local control,” he said. “There’s obviously too much subjectivity.”

Some thoughts:

It’s a new system. Even if you think the teacher ratings are a good idea, they’re a new way for schools to do business. The state didn’t provide any extra resources, leaving it to school principals to find time to do the evaluations themselves or scrape together money to hire and train evaluators. Many districts adopted the state’s RISE system and are learning to implement it. Others are creating their own systems. With either approach, they may be feeling their way.

Beware of unintended consequences. The law says any teacher rated ineffective or needs improvement can’t get a raise. As state Superintendent Glenda Ritz suggested, that creates a disincentive for low ratings. Suppose you’re a principal and you’re evaluating a new teacher who shows lots of promise but needs to get better. Do you rate the teacher “needs improvement,” deny a raise and risk driving away a potential future star?

Labels aren’t everything. The undifferentiated ratings don’t necessarily mean the evaluations were a waste of time. Maybe the classroom observations, consultations and data that were part of the evaluations will help teachers improve. “If, as is hoped, the feedback generated from these reviews is more helpful to teaching and learning, then perhaps the year-end score isn’t the most important thing to consider,” Stephen Sawchuk writes in Education Week.

The “bell curve” idea is nonsense. Len Farber nails this in a post for Indy Vanguard. If you randomly pulled people off the street and put them in a classroom, sure, you’d expect some to be lousy at teaching. But teachers have selected to teach. They’ve finished college; many are motivated enough to get a master’s degree. If they aren’t good at it, chances are they figure it out and leave the field. It’s not surprising that most would be competent.

It’s a myth that only in public education are most employees rated effective. California teacher-blogger Paul Bruno makes this point, citing an economics paper that examines why businesses don’t use employee evaluations to reward superior performance. The paper focuses on two large manufacturing firms where 95 percent of managers and professionals were rated good or excellent.

Finally, in nearly 40 years of working in the private and public sectors – and not as a teacher – I have never experienced annual evaluations as a tool for weeding out “bad” employees. I can recall maybe one time that a co-worker was urged to leave for being ineffective. Maybe I’ve been blessed with remarkably tolerant bosses. But I doubt my experience is that unusual.


10 thoughts on “Teacher evaluation flap is much ado about not so much

  1. Steve, this is a level-headed, thorough examination of the recent hullabaloo about teacher effectiveness. I do have a question for you. Is it possible to find out what percentage of teachers have been found effective in voucher-accepting schools? Or is that data impossible to collect? I was wondering specifically about the private school which Behning is affiliated.

    • Thanks, John. I wonder about that too. My understanding is the data are available only for district schools – not voucher schools and not even charter schools. I’m not completely sure about this, but I think charter schools are required to have a teacher evaluation system but they don’t have to put teachers on the four categories and they don’t have to report the evaluation results for public disclosure. Voucher schools, as I understand it, aren’t required by the state to evaluate teachers. (If I’m wrong I hope someone will correct me here). One could always contact individual voucher schools and ask for their teacher evaluations. But I don’t think they’d have to respond.

  2. I hope that you sent this on to the editors of the IndyStar although, my impression is that they aren’t that interested in logic and data driven results but in results that support their agenda. And thank you for your “bell curve” statement which exactly echoes my thoughts. When this was brought up by Behning, my only thought was that a little, and that is very little, information can be used in a very dangerous way.

  3. Steve – I think you’re right on about the final label not being everything. I’ve heard a lot of administrators and teachers say (sometimes reluctantly!) that the new teacher evaluation systems have improved the quality of the conversations they’re having about classroom practice and student learning. We’ll see over time if the systems move the needle on student learning as measured by standardized assessments.

    I think this post is a needed counterbalance to the rest of the media coverage on teacher evaluation ratings. But, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Some schools really did just give all their employees an “effective”, missing the opportunity to do some really good things with this initiative. Other schools really do have a large number of low performing teachers, and aren’t doing much to change their situation. These are the types of schools that deserve a bit of pressure.

    Finally, you make a good point about beginning teachers. I think there may need to be some nuance added to the evaluation law to make room for teachers in their first few years of practice.

    • Is my reading of the law correct, that charter schools are required to evaluate teachers but not necessarily put them in the four designated categories? And they aren’t required to report the results to the state for public dissemination? And that voucher schools aren’t required to evaluate teachers period?

      • To the best of my knowledge, you’re correct about charter schools. Honestly, I forget what the policy looked like for voucher schools.

  4. Beware of unfunded mandates.

    The legislature sold the new evaluations as a way to identify and reward the best teachers. After talking to a teacher in the school district where I live, I found out what the extra pay was for being “highly effective”: the bonus amounted to an extra $2.40.per day.

    That’s how Indiana rewards excellence. What a sham.

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