May 19, 2016
On the heels of teacher appreciation week, it’s important to remember that truly appreciating teachers means listening to them and what they need to do their job better every day.
Teacher evaluation and support systems have the potential to help teachers learn and become better at their job. But to date, they have been designed and operationalized primarily for accountability rather than for instructional improvement. States and districts would do well to refine their evaluation systems in service of teacher development in order to help all teachers improve their practice based on their individual needs. To best do so, they should listen to and engage teachers in the process. Ultimately, teachers will feel compelled to learn from and act on the results of new evaluation systems insofar as they trust the process and resulting data.
But what do we actually know about teachers’ perceptions of their evaluation process? Two new reports offer insights into this question.
Earlier this month, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) released a report and an accompanying interview with one of the report’s authors, CEP executive director Maria Ferguson. Entitled Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices, the report uses results from a nationally representative survey to analyze teachers’ perceptions on several aspects of their profession, including teacher evaluation. Two days prior, the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) released a report on the relationship between teachers’ satisfaction with evaluation and their perceptions of school climate.
While the two reports differ in their scope and methodology, they both offer interesting data on how teachers view the evaluation processes that schools use to measure their effectiveness. Below are three key themes.
Use of Student Test Scores in Evaluations:
The use of test scores in evaluation has been debated among many stakeholders in the education system, often overshadowing other worthy discussions. But notably, their use appears to influence teacher satisfaction with evaluations. For instance, the IES report found that teachers who had student test scores included in their evaluation process were 2.5 times less likely to be satisfied with it than teachers who didn’t (controlling for other teacher and school characteristics). Similarly, the CEP report found that teachers who were evaluated without student test results found written or verbal evaluation feedback to be helpful more often than teachers who were evaluated with test scores.
Such findings make it clear that the use of student test scores in evaluation sullies teachers’ perceptions of the evaluation process, or at least their impressions of the feedback it produces. However, further research is necessary to determine why teachers hold these opinions. Is it that, when test scores are available, evaluators tend to focus on those rather than providing more nuanced feedback on specific practices? Is it that teachers don’t trust or are unaware of how the test score data are calculated, or don’t perceive it as fair? Such data could provide more useful insights to state and district leaders as they consider whether and how best to incorporate student growth in evaluation moving forward.
Teacher Influence and Voice:
Both studies also reveal that teachers feel little influence over the policies that shape their professional lives, including those that guide evaluation processes. The CEP study found that only one to two percent of teachers feel their opinions influence national- or state-level policy, 19 percent of teachers feel they can influence district policy, and a little over half of teachers feel that their opinions influence decision-making in their own school. The IES study, which asked only about school-level influence, found that teachers, on average, ranked their level of influence as a 2.14 on a four-point scale.
Still, the IES study found that this perceived lack of control did not influence teacher satisfaction with the teacher evaluation process, which suggests that elements beyond teacher influence play a more important role in teachers’ perceptions of evaluation.
One of those more important elements is principal leadership. The IES study found a statistically significant positive relationship between principal leadership and teacher satisfaction with evaluation processes. That is to say, teachers who had more positive perceptions of their principal’s leadership skills were more likely to be satisfied with how they were evaluated. This finding coheres with prior research using IES data which shows that teachers’ overall satisfaction is highly correlated with their perception of their school leader.
Unfortunately, the IES study offers little detail about which leadership traits or behaviors are most important to teachers, although principals’ ability to provide high-quality feedback and aligned learning opportunities is likely a key factor. The CEP study offers a basic glimpse at teachers’ perceptions of school leaders’ written or verbal evaluation feedback: half believed it was helpful and the other half did not, but no further insights are offered as to why different teachers reacted differently to this question. In order to provide school leaders with additional support in this area, further research that probes more deeply for these insights would be welcome.
Taken together, these two studies highlight the need to further investigate the details behind some of these findings—such as principals’ roles and the use of test scores—as evaluation systems continue to evolve. They also demonstrate the value in talking with teachers to understand their reactions to policies that govern their daily practice.
As individual states decide whether and how to improve their teacher evaluation systems, they should regularly gather teachers’ perceptions on evaluation and incorporate them into policy and practice, as Tennessee and others have done, and as New America's recent report Beyond Ratings recommends. Where states cannot take this work on themselves, technical assistance and research organizations can step in and help by providing additional resources and expertise. Evaluation systems will only be “as good as the quality of the observations and feedback” that teachers receive—and who better to assess quality than teachers themselves?"