The Teacher Evaluation and Improvement Merry-Go-Round is Dizzying

Last week, my colleague Andy Smarick weighed in on the conversation about TNTP’s report, The Mirage. Andy questions if TNTP’s findings about teacher professional development—in short, that the system is largely failing—are accurate. That’s because the measure that TNTP used to track teacher improvement is teacher evaluation systems. Although TNTP looked for improvement on a wide range of multiple measures including summative evaluation ratings, classroom observation scores and value-added scores, Andy rightly challenges the measure because teacher evaluation systems on the whole lack the ability to accurately assess teachers’ knowledge and skills. Let alone teachers’ growth. Or even more, if or how the kinds of supports and trainings teachers’ receive lead to any kind of improvement in their practice.

Andy caught the eye of TNTP’s CEO, Dan Weisberg, who wrote in response that evaluation systems don’t have to be perfect to give meaningful trends about teacher improvement or lack thereof. So, Dan argues, we need to at least try to measure the impact of professional development.

Andy and Dan are both right. And their back and forth represents an important, ongoing, and frustrating conversation about how to measure teacher effectiveness and use the results to improve teacher practice.

The piece missing in Andy and Dan’s conversation that could halt the merry-go-round involves something much fuzzier than evaluation metrics and indicators: culture. When states and districts reformed teacher evaluation, many tried to people-proof them from bad actors, which greatly hurt leaders’ ability to align the systems to particular school or district cultures and philosophies of effective instruction. And then on top of that, the narrative around teacher evaluation was too often about firing teachers, not helping them improve.

The missing link here is that many teachers don’t trust teacher evaluation systems to accurately assess their practice. The Mirage found that among teachers whose most-recent evaluation scores were in the lowest two categories, 62% rated their own instruction among the highest. This disconnect speaks volumes about teachers’ perception of their work and the measures used to evaluate them. While we might be able to measure teacher performance, districts and schools do not have the culture in place to embrace the results and act upon them. Until the culture around teacher evaluation systems changes, we’re going to keep going around and around.