Playing the Teacher Evaluation Game – A Race to Nowhere

By Alvin Crawford, CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS)

Alvin Crawford

Are evaluation systems the answer to poor academic achievement in the classroom?
For the past two years, the Department of Education, state departments of education and education foundations have proffered “teacher effectiveness” initiatives focused on evaluation systems, but none has truly moved the needle when it comes to closing the student achievement gap.
This effort was sparked by the New Teacher Projects’ 2009 report on the Widget Effect, which highlighted how inadequate most teacher evaluation systems were in acknowledging any difference in teacher performance. Old systems were based on a pass/fail rating, in which as many as 99 percent of teachers were rated as passing despite the lack of student achievement gains or relative progress towards that goal. In fact, in the study, both teachers and principals acknowledged that the system doesn’t reflect the actual number of effective teachers.
There is no question that there are problems with current teacher evaluation systems. U.S. mathematics and English scores fall to number twenty-two behind other developed nations, such as Canada, China and Japan. It’s clear that we are in need of solutions now to improve our school systems, but are our evaluation systems the symptom or the cause of our lagging educational performance?
I would suggest it’s a symptom of larger problem: the development of people. Why is the U.S. woefully behind our peers in math and science, critical thinking and other fundamental skills needed to earn jobs in a knowledge-based economy? Why do we continue to grow rather than shrink the achievement gap? It’s related to developing teachers and principals that can effectively teach and manage in this newly competitive 21st century learning environment.
The current approach to “teacher effectiveness” is too narrowly focused on a new system of measure. We’ve seen this before. No Child Left Behind had the same measurement challenge as the teacher effectiveness fad. When No Child Left Behind was introduced it moved the conversation from aggregate average test scores to the exposure of results that made it clear that we were failing our poor, minority and other disadvantaged students, but it didn’t provide a framework for changing the results. Instead it focused on the measure. All districts had to report and had to adopt a series of new assessments to support the reporting mandates of No Child Left Behind. Critics and advocates alike will agree that it changed the culture from proudly pointing at ill-defined averages to accepting that the needs of all children weren’t being addressed, but it hasn’t significantly improved student achievement.
It’s time to move away from education fads and develop a mass system that focuses on developing and supporting teachers. Better teachers garner better results, thus helping to bridge the achievement gap.
It’s not that we’re not spending money on helping teachers perform better in the classroom; we’re doing it ineffectively. Much of the investment in the current teacher effectiveness drive is focused on one of three things: 1) establishing a new system of measuring teachers, 2) training principals to measure teachers in the new way, and 3) identifying ways of tying the new evaluation to student achievement results.
There are inherent challenges that this presents, however.
First, we’re not strategic in how we’re spending money to train teachers. If there are going to be new systems in place, we need to support teachers so that they can meet the expectations of these evaluation systems.
Harvard Professor Tom Kane suggests that 25 percent of teachers are excellent, 5-10 percent should be fired and that the majority of teachers (65-70 percent) are average. We can’t fire our way out of this problem. Cutting the bottom 5-10 percent isn’t going to help fix the middle 65-70 percent. New teacher attrition is 30 percent in the first three years, 50 percent in next five and another 50 percent in ten years, and these numbers will only continue to increase. It’s time to start focusing on fixing the middle and raising them up through effective training and support.
Finally, only 30 percent of teachers are in grades or subjects that are tested annually, and often the systems in place don’t accurately tie the teacher to a particulate test and student. For example, most districts test third, fifth, eighth and tenth grades, or the assessments are only in math and English language arts, which means that science, health, physical education, social studies and other subjects to require an exam. So what happens to the other 70 percent of teachers not covered by assessment tests?
We have a long way to go in reforming education. The Obama administration has started to define what works with his Race to the Top initiative to encourage reform in state and local district education.
Unfortunately, the key initiative that isn’t getting addressed with Race to the Top is that talent matters.
Most deans of education and superintendents alike agree that it takes three to five years after certification for teachers to hit their stride. With that in mind, it’s time to start talking about “teacher effectiveness” in a different way. To truly transform teaching and teacher effectiveness, it’s time to focus on developing systems that continue to train teachers in districts and build valuable leaders to support them.
A renewed focus on helping educators manage their classrooms and meet the needs of all of their students would help lower teacher attrition, increase their knowledge and skills, elevate the status of the profession and allow teachers that aren’t up for the training to quietly leave the profession. Good corporations believe that human capital development is central to their success. In education, where 70-80 percent of budgets are spent on people, this approach should be even more important. It’s also the only way we’re going to see a change in student achievement results.

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Charlie Mas

So what are you saying?

Charlie Mas

I agree with all of the platitudes written here. Who wouldn't?
There is widespread agreement that the old style teacher evaluations were meaningless, that the new styles aren't much better, and that meaningful teacher training is good. The suggestion that teacher training be focused on classroom management and differentiated instruction isn't novel either. We don't need a corporate CEO to tell us that.
You know what would have been a better article? How about one that suggests that a key factor to student achievement is the student's motivation and that teacher training (and evaluation) should put a greater focus on the teacher as a motivator. As the teaching role shifts from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side", the effectiveness of the teacher as a motivator becomes critical.
And what motivates people to do cognitive work? Not carrots and sticks. Studies prove them to be actually counter-productive. Instead, people will be motivated to do cognitive work (like teaching and learning) by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Teachers can and should provide students with more frequent and meaningful opportunities for autonomy. Teachers can and should provide students with opportunities to pursue mastery (as opposed to familiarity). And, more than anything else, teachers can and should provide students with a sense that their schoolwork fits within a greater purpose.
Student motivation is the key to academic success. So why isn't more teacher training about how to motivate students? Why isn't teacher evaluation more about how well the teacher motivates?
That would have been a much more interesting article than this one, which didn't really say anything novel or interesting about student achievement, teacher evaluation, or teacher training.

Alvin Crawford

Measuring performance alone does not change it. If we're going to have expectations for teacher effectiveness, then we're going to have to take responsibility for providing the appropriate level of support to help educators gain the skills that they need to be successful in the classroom. As we've seen from pay for performance and teacher evaluation, there's a large difference between asking a teacher to be better at their job and providing them with sufficient on the job training to enable them to be successful. Read "Moving it, Improving it" from the Center for American Progress. It goes deeper into the challenges of evaluation versus support. In large part, I'm suggesting that there needs to be a shift in emphasis from evaluation to actual support for teachers. Until we get there, we're not likely to see significant progress in increasing student achievement.

Mike McGalliard

Great piece. Obsession with the measure is aiming resources at finding some secret tell-all number for teacher quality. Tools like Bloomboard change the focus to meaningful observation and relevant teacher development.

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