Are teacher evaluations telling us what we need to know?
In an online panel hosted by Brookings, two of the report's co-authors and two outside experts discussed how to improve teacher evaluations, with an emphasis on the overlooked elephant in the room, the classroom observations component.
School districts and states are scrambling to figure out how to get more student testing into the teacher evaluation mix, Jacobs said.
But Jacobs agreed that "no matter how big we get that percentage, classroom observation is going to remain terribly important, because it's where the actionable feedback comes from." That is, she argues, improvement in the classroom is much more likely to result from high quality observation than from opaque scores.
One key finding in the Brookings study, given the heavy weight placed on classroom evaluations, was that the structure of classroom observations does not make allowance for the challenges teachers face in different classrooms.
The researchers found evidence that teachers who were tackling more challenging classrooms got weaker classroom evaluations.
Left uncorrected, this skew against teachers in tough classrooms will discourage good teachers from going where they are most needed, argued study co-author Dan Chingos, a Brookings fellow.
"We think it's an important source of bias, and a matter of fairness," Chingos said, adding that teachers may be discouraged from taking on tougher challenges.
Dan Goldhaber, director of the Seattle-based Center for Education Data & Research, agreed with Chingos in the panel discussion.
"There is not actually a lot of research that looks at adjusting the classroom observations for student background," Goldhaber said, but the Brookings call for change on this point is consistent with other research that shows student demographics negatively affecting teaching evaluations.
"I think this will come as a surprise to a lot of practitioners," Goldhaber added. “People are used to being observed, and the view is that they are capturing what the teacher is doing independent of students. But in fact what you are observing is the dynamic between the teacher and student and there are a lot of reasons to believe that dynamic will be influenced by the kind of students you have.”
Fairness and feedback
The overarching theme of the report was that teacher evaluations need to be more fair and consistent, but they should also give "actionable feedback" that allows teachers to improve, not merely be judged.
The Brookings study also found, not surprisingly, that classroom evaluations conducted by neutral outside observers are more valid than those conducted by administrators within the school, who will often carry positive or negative biases toward the teacher into the classroom they are evaluating.
The Brookings study was particularly harsh on a widespread practice of evaluating individual teachers based on the test score performance, or value added measures, of the school as a whole.
"You read stories about the gym teacher being judged by the math value added for all the kids in the school," Chingos said. But even for those who do teach math or English, Chingos said, this measurement system hurts you for "being a good teacher in a bad school."
"Just like with the failure to correct on observation scores, school-wide value added measures can create a penalty for teaching in challenging environments," Chingos said.
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