Using Evaluation to Help Teachers Learn

Weekly Article
March 10, 2016

Imagine it’s annual performance review time, and the head of your organization provides you with an overall performance rating. But, given her operational, financial, and other management responsibilities, she rarely gave you feedback leading up to your review, and when she did, it was unclear how to act on it. That is, she offered few—if any—concrete suggestions for how to improve or connections to more skilled colleagues who could help guide your learning.

So it has been for teachers across America. To date, most states have failed to help school districts link systems for evaluating teacher performance with meaningful opportunities for teachers to learn and grow on the job. And this is an enormous missed opportunity, particularly given the rise of more rigorous standards for students. Students will meet these new expectations only insofar as their teachers can successfully deliver them in the classroom, and teachers are more likely to do so with evaluations that both hold them accountable and support their ongoing growth.

First, it should be said that teacher evaluation systems have come a long way in recent years. A seminal 2009 report, The Widget Effect, found that old evaluations were perfunctory at best, and non-existent at worst. Principals tended to use compliance-focused checklists that had little to do with good teaching practice. And the systems did not include measures of student learning. As such, old systems failed to differentiate teacher performance and rarely informed teachers’ development, or other personnel decisions. In fact, the same report found that three out of every four teachers did not receive any specific feedback on improving their performance during the evaluation process.

Spurred in part by these findings, the U.S. Department of Education developed policies that propelled most states to adopt more evidence-based teacher evaluation systems over the past five years that include measures of student learning and more detailed observations of teacher practice.

These new systems hold enormous potential for providing teachers with targeted feedback on specific teaching practices in order to improve their craft and advance students’ learning. And the U.S. Department of Education always intended for these systems to have a dual purpose of both accountability and support for improving teaching.

However, the Department chose not to hold states accountable for failing to follow through on the latter. Instead, it enforced areas often associated with accountability, such as whether states incorporated student learning in their evaluation systems within a certain timeframe or tied ratings to high-stakes decisions for teachers, like merit pay.

And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, a new report from New America finds that while over half of states have adopted policies requiring that evaluation inform teacher development, even these states have not yet helped districts fully realize evaluation’s potential for teacher improvement. Instead, states have focused more on operationalizing their systems in order to rate teacher practice and identify the percentage of teachers who fall in each rating category. Hence, much of the public narrative and teacher pushback around new evaluations has been on their use for informing personnel decisions such as pay, promotion, and dismissal, rather than for helping teachers learn and get better at their job.

But very few teachers have actually been identified and dismissed for poor performance under new evaluation systems, despite anxiety among teachers that they would be. In most states, evaluation results show that the vast majority of teachers are being rated as average or above. Teachers continue to be rated highly for several reasons, including school cultures where principals face barriers to providing honest feedback, such as lack of time and a desire to maintain staff morale, along with a need for better training on how to rate teacher practice accurately.

But even if all these factors improved tomorrow and evaluation systems captured a more nuanced picture of teacher performance, most of the 3.5 million teachers in the U.S. would still fall in the middle of the performance distribution—as neither superstars nor laggards. And that is where they will continue to fall if states fail to play their part in shifting evaluation systems further toward support.

And the evidence so far is clear: Such a shift would help. New evaluation systems that include frequent feedback by multiple trained observers and signal that continued poor performance has consequences can lead to improvements in teacher practice and student learning, according to studies on evaluations in Cincinnati Public Schools and DC Public Schools. Which is to say, strong evaluation systems for both accountability and support can have a positive impact.

Still, states and districts have largely overlooked the element of support. While much formalized professional development, or “PD,” has not been found to be particularly effective in improving teacher practice, evidence does exist that teachers can improve in certain contexts. Teachers tend to improve in schools with strong instructional leadership, sustained collaboration, and fair evaluation systems that provide high-quality feedback. And, despite some evaluation system improvements over the past five years, teachers still want more and better feedback from more and better qualified observers, as well as opportunities for collaboration tied to that feedback.

Given this, and the evidence on evaluation systems to date, more teachers would likely trust new evaluation systems and improve under them if states put policies and practices in place to promote a greater connection between evaluation and teacher support. For example, while many states allow for multiple individuals to observe teacher practice, the school principal remains the primary observer in most places. This is despite the fact that principals lack the time and content expertise to support all teachers well. In no other profession is the head of an organization expected to evaluate and develop his or her entire staff—really, imagine that. States could incentivize districts to identify, train, and use teacher leaders to provide all staff with more frequent feedback and create the time and structures for teachers to collaborate with their peers tied to evaluation.

Tennessee is one state that has invested heavily in building both teacher leaders’ and principals’ capacity in providing targeted feedback and aligning that feedback to support. In turn, Tennessee teachers have increasingly responded positively to its evaluation system. The state has also used evaluation data to pair higher- and lower performing teachers on particular teaching skills for structured ongoing collaboration such as informal peer observation and feedback. And recent evidence from the state's pairing program suggests that tying structured peer collaboration to teacher evaluation can lead to positive gains in both teacher practice and student learning.  

While a popular new working paper drives home the fact that new evaluation systems have not solved the lack of differentiation in overall performance ratings found in The Widget Effect, this does not mean that these systems have failed to make a difference or cannot be used to inform teacher improvement. Tennessee has been able to pair teachers to collaborate on specific skills precisely because it can use its evaluation data to differentiate teacher performance within scores on specific teaching practices, although it struggled to differentiate overall ratings. And this is not something the state could have accomplished with Widget-era checklists. Hence, year-end ratings are far less meaningful for improvement than are scores and feedback on discrete skills.

To be sure, like many states, Tennessee initially focused on operationalizing the core elements of its evaluation system for accountability. Now in its fifth year, the state has been able to use ratings to identify teacher leaders to coach their peers. Ratings matter in addition to scores on discrete skills. But given where most teachers fall in the distribution, they matter most as a vehicle for improvement. Tennessee shows how other states that are only beginning to set up evaluation systems can evolve them over time to go beyond ratings and actually help teachers learn.

Though the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) ends the original federal incentives for states to continue this work, for the first time the law explicitly allows states to invest in evaluation systems that provide teachers with “useful and timely feedback” and “inform decision-making about professional development and improvement” strategies. More specifically, states can use funds to train principals—and notably other instructional leaders—on how to provide teachers with feedback that is both accurate and meaningful. While this language is similar to that of the federal incentives that ESSA replaces, the new law carries no specific stipulations or strings. With the pressure lowered on certain aspects of evaluation like student growth or tying ratings to high-stakes personnel decisions, states can now spend more resources investing in teacher support.

Under ESSA, states have an opportunity to improve their evaluation systems and the quality of teaching in public schools by ensuring that teachers are both held accountable and supported on the job. It’s an opportunity they should seize. America’s teachers—and their students—can’t wait.