National Edition

Are teacher evaluations telling us what we need to know?

Published: Wednesday, May 14 2014 4:05 a.m. MDT

Ivan Silverberg teaches his American Studies class to eighth and ninth graders at the Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. This is the first school year that 34 Illinois school districts beyond Chicago will begin grading teachers on whether their studentsí test scores are improving.

Scott Eisen, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Just over a decade ago, improving teacher quality meant stacking up paper credentials. President George W. Bush's signature No Child Left Behind program, for example, created incentives for schools to hire more teachers with post-secondary education or certification in subject areas.

In the Obama years, the tide has shifted, notes a new study released by the Brookings Institution. Teachers are increasingly being paid, measured and promoted on the basis of classroom performance rather than credentials.

And yet, the report argues, far too little is known about whether these teacher evaluation systems are telling us what we really need to know.

In "Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations," researchers at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released their conclusions Tuesday, drawing from studying multiple years of data from four major urban school districts.

Overall, the Brookings report offered hard evidence that merit-based teaching evaluations, though imperfect, are statistically valid and much more valuable than older measures using paper credentials. But the authors did argue that much needs to be done to make the evaluations more fair and consistent — and to help teachers improve.

"We are asking administrators to do something that is so central to kids' learning but they really haven't been asked to do before," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, speaking as part of an online panel hosted by Brookings to discuss the new report.

In the past, Jacobs said, principals would visit a classroom and "just say, no alarm bells are going off, so I'll just quietly step out."

In the new paradigm, Jacobs said, principals will have to have searching, rigorous conversations with teachers to help them improve, the kinds of conversations that used to be only reserved for when there was a "big, big problem."

"Now we are asking administrators to sit down with teachers and say, yes, it was a good lesson, but it wasn't a great lesson," Jacobs said. "And here are some things you can do to hit it out of the park."

Classroom observation

Among the key observations in the Brookings report is that student test scores play a relatively small role in teacher evaluations.

When students are tested at the end of a school year and then their gains over the next year are measured and compared to their end point a year previous, the knowledge gained is called a "value added measure."

But as study co-author Grover Whitehurst noted, kids are not tested until third grade — and because by sixth grade they are taking multiple teachers — the study found that only 22 percent of the teachers are evaluated even partially based on test scores.

And of those, he adds, often less than half of teacher quality measures hinge on test scores.

"We find unions drawing the line on value added, we find litigation over it, and you'd think that was all that was going on," Whitehurst said. In fact, he says, only a minority of teachers are evaluated based on student tests. And of those, only a fraction of their evaluations is derived from student tests.

The bulk of the evaluations, Whitehurst said, are based on classroom observations, usually conducted by the principal or other administrators. These observations comprise at least 40 and often as high as 70 percent of the teacher evaluation, even when student test scores are available.

This is despite the widespread misperceptions, the authors note, that teacher performance is, for better or worse, now being heavily quantified on the basis on test scores.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere