Matthew A. Kraft — an Assistant Professor of Education & Economics at Brown University and co-author of an article published in Educational Researcher on “Revisiting The Widget Effect” (here), and another of his co-authors Matthew P. Steinberg — an Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the University of Pennsylvania — just published another article in this same journal on “The Sensitivity of Teacher Performance Ratings to the Design of Teacher Evaluation Systems” (see the full and freely accessible, at least for now, article here; see also its original and what should be enduring version here).
In this article, Steinberg and Kraft (2017) examine teacher performance measure weights while conducting multiple simulations of data taken from the Bill & Melinda Gates Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies. They conclude that “performance measure weights and ratings” surrounding teachers’ value-added, observational measures, and student survey indicators play “critical roles” when “determining teachers’ summative evaluation ratings and the distribution of teacher proficiency rates.” In other words, the weighting of teacher evaluation systems’ multiple measures matter, matter differently for different types of teachers within and across school districts and states, and matter also in that so often these weights are arbitrarily and politically defined and set.
Indeed, because “state and local policymakers have almost no empirically based evidence [emphasis added, although I would write “no empirically based evidence”] to inform their decision process about how to combine scores across multiple performance measures…decisions about [such] weights…are often made through a somewhat arbitrary and iterative process, one that is shaped by political considerations in place of empirical evidence” (Steinberg & Kraft, 2017, p. 379).
This is very important to note in that the consequences attached to these measures, also given the arbitrary and political constructions they represent, can be both professionally and personally, career and life changing, respectively. How and to what extent “the proportion of teachers deemed professionally proficient changes under different weighting and ratings thresholds schemes” (p. 379), then, clearly matters.
While Steinberg and Kraft (2017) have other key findings they also present throughout this piece, their most important finding, in my opinion, is that, again, “teacher proficiency rates change substantially as the weights assigned to teacher performance measures change” (p. 387). Moreover, the more weight assigned to measures with higher relative means (e.g., observational or student survey measures), the greater the rate by which teachers are rated effective or proficient, and vice versa (i.e., the more weight assigned to teachers’ value-added, the higher the rate by which teachers will be rated ineffective or inadequate; as also discussed on p. 388).
Put differently, “teacher proficiency rates are lowest across all [district and state] systems when norm-referenced teacher performance measures, such as VAMs [i.e., with scores that are normalized in line with bell curves, with a mean or average centered around the middle of the normal distributions], are given greater relative weight” (p. 389).
This becomes problematic when states or districts then use these weighted systems (again, weighted in arbitrary and political ways) to illustrate, often to the public, that their new-and-improved teacher evaluation systems, as inspired by the MET studies mentioned prior, are now “better” at differentiating between “good and bad” teachers. Thereafter, some states over others are then celebrated (e.g., by the National Center of Teacher Quality; see, for example, here) for taking the evaluation of teacher effects more seriously than others when, as evidenced herein, this is (unfortunately) more due to manipulation than true changes in these systems. Accordingly, the fact remains that the more weight VAMs carry, the more teacher effects (will appear to) vary. It’s not necessarily that they vary in reality, but the manipulation of the weights on the back end, rather, cause such variation and then lead to, quite literally, such delusions of grandeur in these regards (see also here).
At a more pragmatic level, this also suggests that the teacher evaluation ratings for the roughly 70% of teachers who are not VAM eligible “are likely to differ in systematic ways from the ratings of teachers for whom VAM scores can be calculated” (p. 392). This is precisely why evidence in New Mexico suggests VAM-eligible teachers are up to five times more likely to be ranked as “ineffective” or “minimally effective” than their non-VAM-eligible colleagues; that is, “[also b]ecause greater weight is consistently assigned to observation scores for teachers in nontested grades and subjects” (p. 392). This also causes a related but also important issue with fairness, whereas equally effective teachers, just by being VAM eligible, may be five-or-so times likely (e.g., in states like New Mexico) of being rated as ineffective by the mere fact that they are VAM eligible and their states, quite literally, “value” value-added “too much” (as also arbitrarily defined).
Finally, it should also be noted as an important caveat here, that the findings advanced by Steinberg and Kraft (2017) “are not intended to provide specific recommendations about what weights and ratings to select—such decisions are fundamentally subject to local district priorities and preferences. (p. 379). These findings do, however, “offer important insights about how these decisions will affect the distribution of teacher performance ratings as policymakers and administrators continue to refine and possibly remake teacher evaluation systems” (p. 379).
Related, please recall that via the MET studies one of the researchers’ goals was to determine which weights per multiple measure were empirically defensible. MET researchers failed to do so and then defaulted to recommending an equal distribution of weights without empirical justification (see also Rothstein & Mathis, 2013). This also means that anyone at any state or district level who might say that this weight here or that weight there is empirically defensible should be asked for the evidence in support.
Rothstein, J., & Mathis, W. J. (2013, January). Review of two culminating reports from the MET Project. Boulder, CO: National Educational Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-MET-final-2013
Steinberg, M. P., & Kraft, M. A. (2017). The sensitivity of teacher performance ratings to the design of teacher evaluation systems. Educational Researcher, 46(7), 378–
396. doi:10.3102/0013189X17726752 Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0013189X17726752