Using Teacher Evaluations to Improve Education

A CAP event presents ways to improve teacher evaluations and use tenure more effectively.



“We should have a common definition of teacher excellence—not just words on a page, but understanding and instantiation of these standards,” said Joan Baratz-Snowden, the president of the Education Study Center, at a panel on the future of teacher evaluations and tenure systems hosted by the Center for American Progress last Thursday.

The event was held in conjunction with the release of two reports “So Long, Lake Wobegon? Using Teacher Evaluations to Raise Teacher Quality,” by Dr. Morgaen L. Donaldson, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, and “Fixing Tenure: a Proposal for Assuring Teacher Effectiveness and Due Process” by Baratz-Snowden. Donaldson and Baratz-Snowden took part in the panel discussion with Peter Kilmarx, vice president of human resources at Green Dot Public Schools, and Kate Walsh, member of the Maryland State Board of Education and president of National Council on Teacher Quality. CAP’s Vice President for Education Policy Cynthia Brown moderated the panel.

Teacher evaluations have come under fire in recent years because “almost all teachers are rated satisfactory or outstanding,” according to Donaldson. She attributed these high scores to multiple factors. “[Evaluations] often reflect what is measurable, not what matters,” she said. And many evaluators “have little time to work with” and “lack the skill to conduct good evaluations.”

She also pointed to two cultural problems: The “norm of noninterference” that causes teachers to give broad discretion to teachers in their classrooms and a “lack of evaluator will to differentiate among teachers,” which she called the “largest obstacle” to improving teacher evaluations.

The absence of a meaningful teacher evaluation system can impede the ability of school districts to identify effective teachers, dismiss ineffective ones, and ensure that the tenure decision is meaningful. Brown explained that, “In the absence of rigorous evaluation systems, tenure will surely continue to draw fire from critics.”

The panelists agreed that tenure itself is not the cause of the problem and they pointed to the weak evaluations and the lack of rigor in awarding tenure instead. Walsh argued that tenure “presents a real opportunity for us to improve the profession” and she wants to shift tenure from an “automatic give” to one based on performance on evaluations. In her view improving tenure cannot be done without rethinking teacher evaluations.

So what would it take to improve teacher evaluations? Kilmarx thinks we should begin by finding a “definition of teacher excellence and then build a system off of that.” All the panelists agreed that such a definition should include student learning, which is measured through standardized testing, but there should be other factors as well.

Donaldson explained the limitations of solely using student learning as a measurement. “[Test scores] give you a benchmark, but they do not tell you how to improve that benchmark,” she said. Baratz-Snowden also addressed some programs that use standardized testing in evaluations. “Just because we don’t get the outcome we want doesn’t mean the people we are evaluating aren’t doing their jobs,” she said, pointing to cultural and societal barriers as a possible cause of low-test scores.

Assessments that use multiple measurements and multiple evaluations were part of Donaldson’s recommendations. She also said that “valid and reliable instruments” are needed for making those evaluations and that evaluations should be used to provide meaningful feedback to teachers on their performance instead of being used for “cheerleading” and “motivating” as they have in the past.

Whether that willingness results in measurable changes to teacher evaluations is unclear, but the panelists’ suggestions are a start. The panelists all agreed that we have a problem, which is an important first step in reforming teacher evaluations and strengthening tenure systems.

For more on this event please see the event page.

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