Thomas Toch — education policy expert and research fellow at Georgetown University, and founding director of the Center on the Future of American Education — just released, as part of the Center, a report titled: Grading the Graders: A Report on Teacher Evaluation Reform in Public Education. He sent this to me for my thoughts, and I decided to summarize my thoughts here, with thanks and all due respect to the author, as clearly we are on different sides of the spectrum in terms of the literal “value” America’s new teacher evaluation systems might in fact “add” to the reformation of America’s public schools.
While quite a long and meaty report, here are some of the points I think that are important to address publicly:
First, is it true that using prior teacher evaluation systems (which were almost if not entirely based on teacher observational systems) yielded for “nearly every teacher satisfactory ratings”? Indeed, this is true. However, what we have seen since 2009, when states began to adopt what were then (and in many ways still are) viewed as America’s “new and improved” or “strengthened” teacher evaluation systems, is that for 70% of America’s teachers, these teacher evaluation systems are still based only on the observational indicators being used prior, because for only 30% of America’s teachers are value-added estimates calculable. As also noted in this report, it is for these 70% that “the superficial teacher [evaluation] practices of the past” (p. 2) will remain the same, although I disagree with this particular adjective, especially when these measures are used for formative purposes. While certainly imperfect, these are not simply “flimsy checklists” of no use or value. There is, indeed, much empirical research to support this assertion.
Likewise, these observational systems have not really changed since 2009, or 1999 for that matter and not that they could change all that much; but, they are not in their “early stages” (p. 2) of development. Indeed, this includes the Danielson Framework explicitly propped up in this piece as an exemplar, regardless of the fact it has been used across states and districts for decades and it is still not functioning as intended, especially when summative decisions about teacher effectiveness are to be made (see, for example, here).
Hence, in some states and districts (sometimes via educational policy) principals or other observers are now being asked, or required to deliberately assign to teachers’ lower observational categories, or assign approximate proportions of teachers per observational category used. Whereby the instrument might not distribute scores “as currently needed,” one way to game the system is to tell principals, for example, that they should only allot X% of teachers as per the three-to-five categories most often used across said instruments. In fact, in an article one of my doctoral students and I have forthcoming, we have termed this, with empirical evidence, the “artificial deflation” of observational scores, as externally being persuaded or required. Worse is that this sometimes signals to the greater public that these “new and improved” teacher evaluation systems are being used for more discriminatory purposes (i.e., to actually differentiate between good and bad teachers on some sort of discriminating continuum), or that, indeed, there is a normal distribution of teachers, as per their levels of effectiveness. While certainly there is some type of distribution, no evidence exists whatsoever to suggest that those who fall on the wrong side of the mean are, in fact, ineffective, and vice versa. It’s all relative, seriously, and unfortunately.
Related, the goal here is really not to “thoughtfully compare teacher performances,” but to evaluate teachers as per a set of criteria against which they can be evaluated and judged (i.e., whereby criterion-referenced inferences and decisions can be made). Inversely, comparing teachers in norm-referenced ways, as (socially) Darwinian and resonate with many-to-some, does not necessarily work, either or again. This is precisely what the authors of The Widget Effect report did, after which they argued for wide-scale system reform, so that increased discrimination among teachers, and reduced indifference on the part of evaluating principals, could occur. However, as also evidenced in this aforementioned article, the increasing presence of normal curves illustrating “new and improved” teacher observational distributions does not necessarily mean anything normal.
And were these systems not used often enough or “rarely” prior, to fire teachers? Perhaps, although there are no data to support such assertions, either. This very argument was at the heart of the Vergara v. California case (see, for example, here) — that teacher tenure laws, as well as laws protecting teachers’ due process rights, were keeping “grossly ineffective” teachers teaching in the classroom. Again, while no expert on either side could produce for the Court any hard numbers regarding how many “grossly ineffective” teachers were in fact being protected but such archaic rules and procedures, I would estimate (as based on my years of experience as a teacher) that this number is much lower than many believe it (and perhaps perpetuate it) to be. In fact, there was only one teacher whom I recall, who taught with me in a highly urban school, who I would have classified as grossly ineffective, and also tenured. He was ultimately fired, and quite easy to fire, as he also knew that he just didn’t have it.
Now to be clear, here, I do think that not just “grossly ineffective” but also simply “bad teachers” should be fired, but the indicators used to do this must yield valid inferences, as based on the evidence, as critically and appropriately consumed by the parties involved, after which valid and defensible decisions can and should be made. Whether one calls this due process in a proactive sense, or a wrongful termination suit in a retroactive sense, what matters most, though, is that the evidence supports the decision. This is the very issue at the heart of many of the lawsuits currently ongoing on this topic, as many of you know (see, for example, here).
Finally, where is the evidence, I ask, for many of the declaration included within and throughout this report. A review of the 133 endnotes included, for example, include only a very small handful of references to the larger literature on this topic (see a very comprehensive list of these literature here, here, and here). This is also highly problematic in this piece, as only the usual suspects (e.g., Sandi Jacobs, Thomas Kane, Bill Sanders) are cited to support the assertions advanced.
Take, for example, the following declaration: “a large and growing body of state and local implementation studies, academic research, teacher surveys, and interviews with dozens of policymakers, experts, and educators all reveal a much more promising picture: The reforms have strengthened many school districts’ focus on instructional quality, created a foundation for making teaching a more attractive profession, and improved the prospects for student achievement” (p. 1). Where is the evidence? There is no such evidence, and no such evidence published in high-quality, scholarly peer-reviewed journals of which I am aware. Again, publications released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and from the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies, as still not externally reviewed and still considered internal technical reports with “issues”, don’t necessarily count. Accordingly, no such evidence has been introduced, by either side, in any court case in which I am involved, likely, because such evidence does not exist, again, empirically and at some unbiased, vetted, and/or generalizable level. While Thomas Kane has introduced some of his MET study findings in the cases in Houston and New Mexico, these might be some of the easiest pieces of evidence to target, accordingly, given the issues.
Otherwise, the only thing I can say from reading this piece that with which I agree, as that which I view, given the research literature as true and good, is that now teachers are being observed more often, by more people, in more depth, and in perhaps some cases with better observational instruments. Accordingly, teachers, also as per the research, seem to appreciate and enjoy the additional and more frequent/useful feedback and discussions about their practice, as increasingly offered. This, I would agree is something that is very positive that has come out of the nation’s policy-based focus on its “new and improved” teacher evaluation systems, again, as largely required by the federal government, especially pre-Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Overall, and in sum, “the research reveals that comprehensive teacher-evaluation models are stronger than the sum of their parts.” Unfortunately again, however, this is untrue in that systems based on multiple measures are entirely limited by the indicator that, in educational measurement terms, performs the worst. While such a holistic view is ideal, in measurement terms the sum of the parts is entirely limited by the weakest part. This is currently the value-added indicator (i.e., with the lowest levels of reliability and, related, issues with validity and bias) — the indicator at issue within this particular blog, and the indicator of the most interest, as it is this indicator that has truly changed our overall approaches to the evaluation of America’s teachers. It has yet to deliver, however, especially if to be used for high-stakes consequential decision-making purposes (e.g., incentives, getting rid of “bad apples”).
Feel free to read more here, as publicly available: Grading the Teachers: A Report on Teacher Evaluation Reform in Public Education. See also other claims regarding the benefits of said systems within (e.g., these systems as foundations for new teacher roles and responsibilities, smarter employment decisions, prioritizing classrooms, increased focus on improved standards). See also the recommendations offered, some with which I agree on the observational side (e.g., ensuring that teachers receive multiple observations during a school year by multiple evaluators), and none with which I agree on the value-added side (e.g., use at least two years of student achievement data in teacher evaluation ratings–rather, researchers agree that three years of value-added data are needed, as based on at least four years of student-level test data). There are, of course, many other recommendations included. You all can be the judges of those.