The Right Way to Evaluate Teachers

Teacher evaluation can improve America's schools. But there are good ways and bad ways to gauge teachers -- and too often school systems are using the bad ways.

That's obvious if you read a report published today by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), which provides a state-by-state analysis of teacher effectiveness policies.  

The report discusses the momentum around the country toward developing teacher evaluation systems that factor in student achievement. According to the report, 32 states and the District of Columbia have changed their state teacher evaluation policies in the last three years. The number of states requiring annual evaluations of teachers grew from 15 in 2009 to 24 this year. In 2009, just four states were using student achievement as a main factor in assessing teacher performance. Today 23 states do.

The study is worth reading in full. On the surface, it is easy to read the highlights and think this all means forward progress. But NCTQ is very clear that not all evaluation systems are equal. NCTQ says that the success of evaluation is dependent on consistency, reliability and clear criteria. But it's also dependent on how much it helps teachers improve their technique. And it is this last point where things get fuzzy.
NCTQ says that the current movement is a "marked improvement on evaluation systems that find 99 percent of teachers effective with little attention to a teacher’s impact on students and offer little meaningful information on teachers’ strengths, weaknesses and professional development needs."

That last phrase is key. To be fully worth the investment of time and money, evaluation should be a tool, not just a threat.

In 18 states, the NCTQ found that teacher evaluation is heavily tied to dismissal. When evaluation takes on a punitive tone it becomes less effective. Evaluation should be part of a feedback loop that has as one its consistent outcomes pinpointing strengths and weaknesses with the aim of improving teachers' techniques. The highest performing individuals in any occupation need feedback to continue to improve their game over time. Teachers are no different. They need coaching. Evaluation, properly applied, can be an important component of this process.

The New Yorker recently published an article about a surgeon who sought out coaching.  His logic makes sense: 

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise. . . . It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. . .

Elite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice” — sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed.

Any teacher who undergoes evaluation should end the process with a clear sense of how to proceed if they want to further develop their abilities.

The fact that there is ongoing momentum in evaluating teachers has potential to improve teacher performance. True, there are inherent problems when that evaluation does not connect to student outcomes. But there are also inherent problems when it focuses too much on what students are doing and not on the paths teachers are using to guide them there. The evaluation process can only reach its full potential if it gives teachers a 360-degree picture of their effectiveness along with concrete ways (and time) to improve their skills.