Teacher evaluation was one of President Obama’s signature policies, and a controversial element of education reform during his tenure. With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which does not require states and districts to implement performance-based teacher evaluations like No Child Left Behind waivers did, teacher evaluation policy has largely fallen out of the public narrative. But that does not mean states or districts know how they are going to proceed with teacher evaluation policy — in fact, its future remains unclear in this new era of lessened federal oversight.
In December 2016, Bellwether Education Partners and The Thomas B. Fordham Institute independently released two reports centered on teacher evaluation and its consequences. Bellwether’s report summarizes the teacher evaluation policy landscape and points out potential risks for teacher evaluation in the wake of the passage of ESSA. The Fordham Institute’s report studies 25 districts to determine if those districts can terminate veteran teachers once evaluation systems have deemed them ineffective.
Both reports offer a glimpse into ongoing challenges and opportunities with teacher evaluation reform, but they have very different analyses. To understand our different approaches and the places where we might overlap on teacher evaluation policy, Bellwether and Fordham hosted an email conversation between the report authors. Below is a transcript of the exchange between Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead and Fordham’s Victoria McDougald and David Griffith.
Fordham’s report emphasized dismissing ineffective veteran teachers and Bellwether’s report highlighted how the field has switched the focus of teacher evaluation to professional development. Are these aims incompatible? Understanding the core purpose of teacher evaluation systems is especially important as states and districts consider making changes in the ESSA era. Each exchange below ends with a question for the other organization’s authors to respond to. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
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Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead: When we wrote our report, we grappled with what policymakers, teachers, and the public see as teacher evaluation’s purpose or “theory of action.” From the onset of reforms, there was inconsistent messaging. Some said teacher evaluation would be used primarily to inform employment decisions. Others said the systems would inform teachers’ professional development. Over time, many said the systems would do both. The inconsistent messaging about the purpose of teacher evaluation enabled opponents to define the systems as primarily punitive measures targeting teachers.
This led advocates to lose hold of the teacher evaluation narrative. Although very few teachers are rated ineffective and – as you write about in your report – even fewer actually lose their jobs because of poor evaluation ratings, many teachers currently view performance-based teacher evaluation systems as mechanisms to harm them.
But focusing narrowly on ineffective teachers may be the wrong emphasis. We believe that teacher evaluation is important because these systems can be used to define common expectations for effective teaching practice, facilitate data-driven conversations about instruction, and reward effective teaching in order to retain the most-skilled teachers. In the past several years, many states have used the systems to do this – in fact the most differentiation of teacher practice is happening at the high end of the spectrum between “effective” and “highly effective” teachers.
So while it is troubling that the systems have not exited poor performing teachers from the profession like many early teacher evaluation advocates hoped they would, the reformed systems have made progress over the binary systems they replaced. Yet the focus on firing teachers continues to dominate the public narrative.
Now because the Every Student Succeeds Act allows for more changes to teacher evaluation, many states are trying to rid their systems from connection to the “firing bad teachers” narrative. They are doing so by making it even harder to objectively determine ineffective teaching (and exit teachers because of it) by reducing or eliminating the main quantitative data point in many teacher evaluation systems – student achievement and growth data. The loss of this objective data to balance subjective measures like classroom observations and student and parent surveys negatively impacts the reliability of the systems. Moreover it reinforces a troubling age-old message, that great teaching is determined by teacher input and is divorced from student output. This has implications for the future of the teaching profession and the human capital talent interested in joining a profession that is evaluated on these metrics.
When you wrote your report, did you consider teacher evaluation’s theory of action? Do you think performance-based teacher evaluations will survive in the ESSA era if the narrative around them continues to focus on firing ineffective teachers?
Fordham’s Victoria McDougald: While teacher evaluation and dismissal are obviously closely intertwined, our report – Undue Process: Why Bad Teachers in Twenty-Five Diverse Districts Rarely Get Fired – shines light on the latter, equally important yet far less-studied issue. In it, we ask: after nearly a decade of teacher evaluation reform, is it any easier to exit an ineffective veteran teacher from the classroom? Dismissal data are notoriously difficult to come by, but as recently as 2013, just 0.2 percent of tenured teachers in a typical state were dismissed for poor performance.
After combing through collective bargaining agreements, employee handbooks, and state laws, our study yielded bleak findings. Overall, we found that dismissing underperforming teachers remains far too hard (in all twenty-five diverse districts included in our study, significant barriers remain in place to doing so).
Should the conversation around teacher evaluation focus exclusively on firing ineffective teachers? Certainly not. Continue reading