Why Teacher Evaluation in the Early Grades is Different

This is part one of a four-part blog series on teacher evaluation in the early grades.
Blog Post
Sept. 27, 2016

Research confirms what many of us intuitively know: better teachers lead to better student outcomes on measures of academic achievement, college attendance, and career earnings. In the last seven years, an increased focus on teacher evaluation has raised many questions about what constitutes an “effective teacher” and what systems best capture a teacher’s effectiveness. As states and districts grapple with identifying and implementing the most appropriate evaluation tools, one of the many outstanding questions is how such tools can be most appropriately used in the early elementary grades, where learning and instruction often looks different than in older grades.

 States and districts have had systems in place to evaluate teacher performance for decades. Evaluation tools vary, but have historically relied upon classroom observations and principals’ intuition. Unfortunately, many of these older systems do very little to differentiate between high- and low-quality educators. In 2009, TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) published an influential and oft-cited report, The Widget Effect, based upon the study of evaluation systems in 12 diverse school districts. The findings were startling. Nearly all teachers were evaluated positively, with fewer than one percent of teachers receiving unsatisfactory ratings. Additionally, classroom observations didn’t translate into professional development or staffing decisions. Nearly three out of four teachers reported that they never received specific feedback from their observations, and half of the districts had not dismissed a tenured teacher for poor performance in five years. Evaluation systems seemed to be more of a bureaucratic exercise than a system meant to improve the quality of the teaching workforce.

Not long after The Widget Effect was published, the Obama Administration announced the landmark Race to The Top grant competition. The competition’s cornerstone was a call for states to innovate their teacher evaluation models, and it offered more than one-quarter of the competition’s points for systems that promote “great teachers and leaders.” Many states applied for these grants and have since overhauled their teacher evaluation systems in an attempt to better measure teacher quality.

The Administration also made teacher evaluations a priority with its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers. To escape the unrealistic expectations of the law, states were required to develop evaluation systems that used multiple measures to evaluate teachers, including at least one measure of student growth. Desperate for flexibility under NCLB, almost all states applied for waivers despite controversies around teacher evaluation. By the end of 2015, 43 states required student growth to be taken into account in teacher evaluation. 

Needless to say, teacher evaluation looks markedly different today than it did seven years ago in most parts of the country. These new systems differ by state, but often include some combination of classroom observations and measures of student growth, as well as, more recently, student feedback. These changes have not come without growing pains and most states are still adjusting their systems to find what works best for teachers, administrators, and most importantly, for students.

One challenge has been determining the best way to evaluate early education teachers, particularly in the “untested grades,” pre-K through second grade. During the same time that teacher evaluation systems have been changing, there has also been an increasing recognition of the importance of early education at the federal, state, and local level. We have a better understanding now than ever before about how important the early years of school are to children’s development and future success. And much learning in these early years depends on the quality of children’s interactions with adults and the relationships formed with teachers and peers.

Based on what we know about child development, teaching and learning should look different in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades of elementary school than it does for older students. Yet many states have developed “one-size-fits-all” evaluation systems that were not created with the needs of young children in mind. Early grade teachers and evaluators have questioned whether the way older grade teachers are evaluated is appropriate for teachers of younger children. Should teachers be observed and held accountable to the same rubrics, regardless of their students’ age? Is it appropriate or even possible to accurately measure children’s gains in pre-K and kindergarten? Based on what tests? Can young children accurately give feedback about their teachers? States and districts have grappled with these questions and others as they have implemented new teacher evaluation systems. 

In 2013, New America released An Ocean of Unknowns: Risks and Opportunities in Using Student Achievement Data to Evaluate PreK–3rd Grade Teachers, a policy paper examining the best way to measure teacher impact on student learning. This summer, New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team revisited this topic. We examined how several states and districts are differentiating their systems by grade level as they implement new teacher evaluation processes. We looked at three components of teacher evaluations and how they are used in the early grades: classroom observations, student-growth measures (commonly known as student learning objectives, or SLOs), and student surveys. Over the next few days, we will look at how states are incorporating these components into their evaluation systems in a three-part series on teacher evaluation in the early grades. 

State and district teacher evaluation systems are likely to continue to change as states implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act. As evaluation practices are revised and improved, it is imperative that the unique demands and circumstances of the early grades are not lost in the shuffle.