What We Should Be Talking about When We Talk about Teacher Evaluation

Last week, New York’s Board of Regents met to hammer out regulations for the state’s recently approved legislation to overhaul its teacher evaluation system. Pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this year, the legislation called for increasing the weight of student test scores from 20 to 50 percent and significantly reducing the role of principal managers in conducting classroom observations. Cuomo wants to revise the “old” system, in place since 2012, in hopes of reversing the ongoing trend of nearly all teachers receiving ratings of effective or higher.

By doubling down on test-based teacher evaluation and limiting principals’ authority in the process, the bill strives to increase variation in the state’s teacher performance distribution, with the goal of more accurately reflecting reality than the current system. However, the effort could artificially manufacture more teacher quality variance than actually exists. And it altogether ignores a critical piece of what we should be talking about when we talk about teacher evaluation, which goes beyond accountability: helping all teachers improve through high-quality feedback and aligned supports.

A new report released today by Education First offers some guidance on how multi-measure state teacher evaluation systems can be leveraged for ongoing teacher development in local districts, to which states such as New York should take heed. The authors highlight five essential practices employed across five diverse districts—Aldine, TX, Fulton County, GA, Greene County, TN, St. Bernard’s Parish, LA, and Salem-Keizer, OR—implementing new state evaluation systems to ensure they support ongoing teacher learning:

1. Design or refine evaluation systems with support and feedback in mind. Educators in Aldine, Salem-Keizer, and Fulton County cited post-observation conferences as the “most powerful support for teachers” included in the evaluation systems. The conference provides an opportunity for teachers and their managers to discuss specific areas of strength and growth following an observation. Meanwhile, in Greene County every teacher completes a personalized learning plan (PLP) in collaboration with the principal based on results from the student outcomes and classroom observation components of the evaluation system. The PLP identifies specific areas of growth and aligned learning opportunities for the teacher to work on over time.

Current New York State policy does not require conferences following observations—districts can choose to require them or not. And unlike some other states, New York does not require professional learning plans linking evaluation data with specific areas of growth and aligned learning opportunities for all teachers. The state only requires such plans for under-performing teachers. A revised model could include both such structures for all teachers to help drive their continuous improvement.

2. Build principals’ (and other observers’) capacity to deliver high-quality feedback. In Aldine, superintendents train principals on how to deliver effective feedback during post-observation conferences. The district also audits the feedback provided to teachers in order to help target support for those principals most in need. Salem-Kaizer conducts regular “principal clinics” where principals role-play providing high-quality feedback and support for teachers. And district leaders in St. Bernard Parish along with Greene County help leverage others’ capacity to observe and provide continuous feedback, including instructional coaches and teacher leaders.

While it would be difficult to audit observer feedback from the state level, New York could bring together school leaders identified by districts most in need of support and provide training on how to deliver high-quality actionable feedback. The state could also monitor differentiation of classroom observation scores to help target this kind of support and consider involving other instructional support staff in the process.

3. Develop tools and resources to help principals and support staff give high-quality feedback. In Greene County, Aldine, and Salem-Kaizer, district leaders provide structured protocols and resources to principals on how to facilitate learning-focused conversations with teachers and coach them towards growth during post-observation conferences. Salem-Keizer also streamlined the number of observation rubrics used from 40 to one for consistency in training and application of feedback.

New York has created a list of approved observation rubrics for districts to use and requires evaluators to be trained in their application. However, the process for evaluator training is a local decision. The state could take further steps to provide districts with resources on delivering high-quality feedback like the ones used in these districts and potentially streamline its approved rubrics for consistency in application.

4. Offer teachers options for professional learning opportunities aligned to their needs. In Greene County, all principals create a professional learning plan for their school based on teachers’ areas of need as identified through trends in evaluation data. Principals articulate the types of opportunities they will provide to meet teachers’ learning needs as well as the steps to monitor progress, and district leaders then base district-level professional development (PD) on trends from these school plans. Likewise, in Salem-Keizer, district leaders examine trends in evaluation data to design professional learning for their teachers.

New York has generated a large library of resources aligned to the Common Core as well as PD toolkits to turnkey to districts via its EngageNY website. The state could take this work a step further by aligning or tagging resources and videos according to the standards for effective teaching to make it clear how these content-based resources connect to great teaching.

5. Use technology to offer timely data to educators, individualize learning, and improve observations. While none of the districts spotlighted in Education First’s report automatically push out resources to teachers based on their evaluation results, there are some emerging promising practices. For instance, Fulton County uses an online platform that contains videos of great instruction aligned to the observation rubric, which teachers can self-select based on their data. And Salem-Keizer provides professional learning modules aligned to each observation rubric standard through similar online platforms. Principals then recommend opportunities to teachers based on their evaluation.

While it would prove difficult for New York to develop a technology system that would automatically push resources to teachers based on their evaluations, the state could help educators understand which professional learning resources address which teaching standards.

Of course, simply putting any of the above policies or practices in place at the state level is insufficient for ensuring New York’s evaluation system leads to continuous improvement for all teachers: quality and consistency in implementation is key. But by coupling better policies to align evaluation and professional development with more capacity-building and support in implementation, New York State could set the enabling conditions for success.

Rather than refine its nascent evaluation system with support in mind, New York has focused on making tweaks in an effort to produce a different distribution of teacher performance ratings. To be sure, evaluation data should accurately reflect teaching quality—not all teachers should necessarily be rated effective or higher. And including external observers in addition to principals in the evaluation process, as the current plan requires, could provide teachers with more content-specific and accurate feedback. But even with all these changes, it is likely that the majority of teachers will still be rated as “good” because the new system will still lead to a normal distribution of scores. Meanwhile, the new system will still fail to ensure that New York’s teachers are supported in moving from “good” to “great.” The focus should instead be on building observers’ capacity to accurately differentiate teacher performance, provide them with meaningful feedback, and offer aligned resources to help them improve.

The Regents ultimately approved regulations that introduce a new teacher evaluation system based half on student test scores and half on observations. Still, several of its members seem wary of the changes, which New York’s new education commissioner MaryEllen Elia will oversee when she takes office on July 6. And districts can apply for extensions if they are unable to meet the November 15 deadline. While it remains to be seen how the new regulations will play out as districts implement them over the next couple years, one thing is clear: New York should consider ways to improve policies around aligning evaluation and professional development and help districts deliver on these five essential practices. Doing so would go a long way in making teacher evaluation about Elia’s stated goal of helping teachers get better at what they do—come on, Cuomo, what else should we be talking about anyway?

Here at New America, we are examining how new state teacher evaluation systems, like New York’s, can be better leveraged to support high-quality feedback and aligned professional learning opportunities at scale. We’re taking a deeper dive into states’ policies for connecting teacher evaluation and development in order to highlight promising practices and key challenges from which other states can learn. Look for our publication later this fall. "


Kaylan Connally was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She was a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work primarily addressed policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.