A Shifting Landscape for State Teacher Evaluation Policy

Blog Post
Feb. 4, 2014

It’s been an exciting week for teacher quality policy, with the release of two new reports that provide insight into states’ progress (or lack thereof) on such policies. Do these reports find that federal policies have shifted the landscape on teacher evaluation?

The first report, the U.S. Department of Education’s State Implementation of Reforms Promoted Under the Recovery Act, looks at changes in state policies from the year the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted (2009-10) to the first full school year after funds were awarded (2010-11). The second, the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) 2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook National Summary, assesses “every policy states have on their books that affects the quality of teachers” including those related to “identifying effective teachers.” Both reports look at a variety of policies related to educational quality, but for this post, I’m going to focus only on those related to the evaluation of teacher effectiveness.

The Department’s report—based on a Spring 2011 survey of State Education Agencies—demonstrates few improvements in states’ teacher evaluation policies from 2009-10 to 2010-11. For example, in2009-10, only one state supported use of teacher evaluation systems that:

  1. measured performance with more than two rating levels;
  2. were based in part on student achievement gains; and
  3. were based in part on multiple observations.

In 2010-11, only one more state did so than in 2009-10, for a total of two.

By contrast, NCTQ’s report indicates that there has been considerable movement on many teacher evaluation policies since 2010-11. NCTQ found that, in 2013, 13 states had policies requiring all three of the evaluation criteria above—more than six times as many as the Department found in 2010-11.

States have moved particularly quickly on the first two criteria outlined above: 43 require more than two performance rating levels, and 35 require student growth/achievement to be a significant factor in evaluations (with another six requiring some objective evidence of student learning). However, despite research showing that additional observations can improve rating reliability, there has not been a huge increase in the number of states requiring all teachers to receive multiple observations—only 15 did so in 2013 (37 require multiple observations for some teachers).

Table 57

What led to these shifts in teacher evaluation policy from 2010-11 to 2013? Neither of the reports issued last week takes a stand on the role that federal policy may have played in state progress on teacher quality policies, which is wise given that there were likely many factors at play (more on this below). However, it seems undeniable that some aspects of federal policy strongly influenced these outcomes.

It seems undeniable that some aspects of federal policy strongly influenced these outcomes.

Most likely, the Recovery Act—the impetus for the Department’s recent report—did not play a direct role in influencing states’ policies, although the Act did authorize and fund the Race to the Top competition (RTT). One of the selection criteria for the RTT competitive funds was that states ensure participating local districts design and implement evaluation systems that “differentiate effectiveness using multiple rating categories that take into account data on student growth as a significant factor” (emphasis mine). But of the 12 states that won RTT funding in the first two rounds of competition, many only required a small subset of districts to participate and did not enact sweeping statewide teacher evaluation policies. In addition, the other teacher quality-related initiatives in the Recovery Act—the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and the Teacher Incentive Fund—did not require states to do anything on teacher evaluation they hadn’t already committed to doing.

Nonetheless, RTT did serve an important role in states’ teacher evaluation policy changes. By encouraging a substantial number of states to experiment with improvements to teacher evaluation, RTT set the stage for the evaluation policy changes swept in by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waivers that the U.S. Department of Education began issuing in early 2012. One piece of evidence that ESEA waivers played a role in these changes comes from the table above: The percentage of states including student growth as a factor in evaluation systems rose from 10% in 2010-2011 to 80% in 2013, while the percent requiring more than one observation of teacher practice barely increased (from 27% to 29%). ESEA waivers required only the former, not the latter.

Federal policy certainly isn’t the only reason for state teacher evaluation policy shifts. The new federal policy focus on improving teacher quality has been matched by interest from philanthropic foundations, academic researchers, and national and local policy organizations. These groups have brought increasing public attention to the issue of teacher quality, particularly to how evaluations have failed to differentiate teachers’ ability to help students learn. So the progress on teacher evaluation over the last several years likely comes from a synergy between this increased attention and new federal incentives.

Better teacher evaluations hold the potential to improve teaching and learning. But before we get too excited about these recent policy developments, we should remember one key fact: while many states have adopted more rigorous teacher evaluation policies, many have yet to implement them, let alone implement them well. And, as I discuss in a prior post, implementation is ultimately the key to ensuring that improved teacher evaluation policies have a real impact on students’ educational experiences and outcomes.

This post only investigates NCTQ’s recent findings on states’ teacher evaluation policies. However, there are many other interesting and important data in their report, which New America will continue to analyze and share. Stay tuned!

[1] Calculations based on data from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences’ report, “State Implementation of Reforms Promoted Under the Recovery Act,” January 2014.

[2] Calculations based on data from the National Council on Teacher Quality’s report, “2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook: National Summary,” January 2014.

Note: Data may not be directly comparable, as 2009-10 and 2010-11 data were self-reported by states, and 2013 data were from NCTQ’s review of state policies in place.