The Every Student Succeeds Act loosens the requirements governing teacher evaluation systems, and a recent Bellwether Education Partners report analyzes what that means for states, which can now tailor these policies to their own circumstances. Authors suggest ways state officials can learn from past reforms to institute more effective state-led policies.
It’s the authors’ view that the goal of teacher evaluations should be to optimize instructional practice, as measured by academic growth assessments. Many states and districts now use student scores on these tests to, in part, measure teacher effectiveness. Implementation has been rocky in many places, but recent reforms have, overall, improved relations between proponents and opponents of test-based teacher accountability, according to the authors. A growing number of districts and schools, for example, welcome open, constructive dialogue about effective instructional practice; provide specific support and development for each and every teacher; and work to better understand the connection between teacher practice and student academic growth. Nevertheless, many still question whether it’s fair to use test scores to determine teacher effectiveness. And others argue that state tests don’t adequately measure student learning. States looking to reconsider or alter their teacher evaluation policies ought to be cognizant of how these ongoing debates are playing out in various places. The report points to the charter management organization, Achievement First, as a worthwhile model in which student growth assessments count for part of a teacher’s evaluation score, but surveys from students, families, peers, and leaders are also taken into account.
Moreover, the authors caution policymakers that creating and implementing these policies carry a number of risks. First, and perhaps most important, are the considerable amounts of time and resources that must be expended to do this well. States must therefore be sure that they have the requisite people, expertise, and funding. Officials ought to recruit strong state-, district-, and school-level leaders—no small task. And, when crafting policies, resist the urge to move in an overly hasty manner, opting instead for deliberate, informed action.
In locales where interest groups pressure policymakers to base evaluations and employment decisions more on classroom observations and professional development than student achievement measures, the authors argue that caving to these forces would be a mistake because they’d reduce school and teacher accountability. For proof they state, again, that student growth indicators are the most accurate assessment of teacher effectiveness, especially for low-income and minority students. Moving away from these metrics would therefore harm disadvantaged pupils and widen achievement gaps.
We ought not simply take the authors at their word here, however. It’s important to note that, as many have argued, “value added” might not, in fact, be the best way to measure teacher quality. Especially worrying is the concern that an overemphasis on test score gains will encourage nervous teachers to teach slavishly to the test.
With ESSA and a federal government devoted to local control of education, states are now in the driver seat when it comes to school policy. In this new age, one of the best ways to maximize student outcomes is to frequently and openly share lessons across state lines. On the teacher-evaluation front, a lack of a consensus on what constitutes high-quality teaching will complicate these efforts—but it might also harbor innovation. Change can be a good thing, but it can also sow chaos, and policymakers ought to tread carefully.
SOURCE: Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead, “For Good Measure? Teacher Evaluation Policy in the ESSA Era,” Bellwether Education Partners (December 2016).