Teacher Evaluation Systems Hold Inherent Tensions, Require Refining: American Enterprise Institute Report

With No Child Left Behind waiver applications and related legislation ushering in new teacher evaluation systems in upwards of 20 states, a report out of the American Enterprise Institute highlights four key tensions policymakers and educators must consider in refining such policies.

The first section in the paper, titled "The Hangover: Thinking About The Unintended Consequences Of The Nation's Teacher Evaluation Binge," calls for evaluation requirements to allow for flexibility. There is a tendency to make policies overly prescriptive, which in turn could limit school autonomy and hinder innovation that could lead to the development of better evaluations.

Many of the evaluation proposals being circulated call for decreased attention on details like teachers’ training and other characteristics, and greater focus on the bigger picture — results they elicit in the classroom. On the other hand, mandates that teacher evaluations include specific design elements could be seen as overly prescriptive. According to the paper, this is already the case in several states that now require school districts to adopt teacher evaluations that employ state-defined value-added models or specific teacher evaluation rubrics. In addition, while NCLB waiver criteria require only that states design guidelines for teacher evaluation systems and ensure local districts implement systems that meet those guidelines, some states — including Delaware and South Carolina — have elected to adopt a single statewide teacher evaluation system, in which all the state’s districts must take part.

The paper’s authors point out that poorly designed evaluation requirements could also hinder other innovative models. Some schools have begun to incorporate learning-based software in their classrooms and other blended learning models; these technologies vary in design, approach, costs and teacher role. Student groups in these models are more flexible and fluid, and students receive instruction and tutoring from a variety of teachers and programs. This makes it difficult or impossible to attribute student learning gains in a particular subject to a particular teacher, and complicates teacher evaluation systems that rely on linking teachers to their students’ academic results.

The third tension the paper highlights is the purpose of evaluations; new evaluation systems have been marketed as a means of identifying and dismissing underperforming teachers, while providing all teachers with useful feedback to help improve their performance. That said, state efforts to create new evaluation systems have focused much more on what happens to teachers at the bottom of the spectrum, versus those in the middle or at the top.

Several states’ new teacher evaluation laws mandate the creation of a professional development plan only for low-performing teachers, and chiefly as a means of allowing them an opportunity to improve before dismissing them. Current design efforts have not focused on incorporating features that would ensure evaluations actually help teachers improve. According to the report’s authors, evaluation systems need to be designed with a mind to allowing for face-to-face discussion time between the teacher and his or her evaluator.

Lastly, there is a prevailing sentiment that holding teachers accountable for their performance will more closely align teaching with norms in other professions. However, most professional fields rely on a combination of data and managerial judgment when conducting evaluations and making subsequent personnel decisions. This is in stark contrast to the teaching profession, in which new evaluation systems have aimed to eliminate subjective judgments entirely, instead focusing solely on student performance.

According to the paper, the best protection against biased managerial judgment is to ensure that the managers themselves are also held accountable for performance. Furthermore, in designing value-added systems, policymakers should consider whether the elements they are adding move education away from or closer to professional norms in other fields.

The report’s authors offer several policy recommendations for designing new teacher evaluation systems moving forward:

• Be clear about the problems new evaluation systems are intended to solve.
• Do not mistake processes and systems as substitutes for cultural change.

• Look at the entire education ecosystem, including broader labor-market impacts, pre- and in-service preparation, standards and assessments, charter schools, and growth of early childhood education and innovative school models.

• Focus on improvement, not just deselection.

• Encourage and respect innovation.

• Think carefully about waivers versus umbrellas.

• Do not expect legislation to do regulation’s job.

• Create innovation zones for pilots—and fund them