Trending: Evaluating Teacher Evaluations

ImageHappy Monday!  We have some exciting news: we have now officially made it through all five stages of our framework!  If you’ve been following us since the beginning, then you’ve read them all.  If you joined us part-way through the journey, you can get a quick recap from this post.

The beauty of a framework is that it gives you a structure to analyze what could otherwise seem like the many unwieldy disparate parts of the education world.  So in celebration of that, we are launching a new series on Ed to Save the World called Trending 

For this series, every Monday we’ll tackle a newsworthy issue in education and discuss it in the context of our framework.  We’ll comb the educational news, journals, research, and blogs to find out what everyone is talking about and share it with  you.  To kick off this inaugural post, we decided to talk about an issue you can’t avoid right now in education news: teacher evaluation. 

In fact just last week, New York City unveiled its teacher evaluation system.   This news has unleashed a flutter of commentary about whether the system will positively impact the learning of New York City’s students.

These types of debates are normally framed around the question:

Will this model for teacher evaluation accurately predict student achievement?

To do this researchers have played with percentages, engaged in randomized trials, and poured over data sets from around the country.  Some of the best recommendations come out of the Gates-funded Measuring Teacher Effectiveness Project.  MET’s Culminating Findings were published in January and suggest that evaluations should include a composite of student scores on standardized test, student surveys, and observations.  The study discusses different ways to weigh those factors to best correlate evaluations with student achievement.

Discussing teacher evaluation in terms of student achievement implies two questions:

1)   How do we define student achievement?

2)   Does this evaluation system itself lead to improved student achievement?

image credit: MET Culminating Findings

image credit: MET Culminating Findings

The MET authors delve into the first question by using both state tests and “more cognitively challenging”/ “higher order” tests to measure student achievement.  Interestingly of the four models for weighing different elements in teacher evaluation, the highest correlation to the higher order test was only 34% .  The model that had the highest correlation to state test achievement had the lowest correlation to the higher order test achievement (69% for the standardized test and 29% for higher order).   Clearly there are no easy answers here.

In terms of the difficulties presented by the first question, our second question becomes even more relevant.  You could put this question another way and ask, “are the evaluation systems we are using having a positive impact on learning?”  Since we know that the biggest influence on student learning is teacher quality, we could also ask, “are the evaluation systems we are using making our teachers better?”

In Stage 1 of our framework, we assert that improving student learning requires adults to commit to continuous improvement, question assumptions, take risks, and reflect on their actions and choices.  In order to help students grow, adults need to be growing as well in their professional practice.  Teaching is complex and requires that we consistently push ourselves to try new well thought-out approaches and reflect on their effects in the classroom.

Therefore consider these questions for evaluating evaluation systems:

1) Does the system encourage teachers to stretch and take risks?

2) Does it help teachers grow in and reflect on their practice?

Having a framework for thinking about learning helps us pull these questions out into the light.

Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson offers some helpful insight into how evaluation systems can support teacher growth.  In her recent Atlantic article about Dr. Ferguson’s work on using student surveys in teacher evaluations, Amanda Ripley wondered,

“But even if testing data existed for every­one, how informative would they really be? Test scores can reveal when kids are not learning; they can’t reveal why. They might make teachers relax or despair—but they can’t help teachers improve. The surveys focus on the means, not the ends—giving teachers tangible ideas about what they can fix right now, straight from the minds of the people who sit in front of them all day long.”

In the article Ripley expands upon the power of using student surveys to evaluate teachers.  Using direct information from students not only assesses teachers, but allows teachers to hone in on areas for growth.  For example, a teacher might review the results of a survey and see that many students disagreed with the statement “The comments that I get on my work in this class help me understand how to improve.”  That feedback would prompt most teachers to think “hmm…how could I provide better feedback to students?”  A little more helpful to growth than test scores right?  So you may say, couldn’t adult observers give the same feedback?  Well here’s  the kicker, according to Ripley’s article:

“Students were better than trained adult observers at evaluating teachers. This wasn’t because they were smarter but because they had months to form an opinion, as opposed to 30 minutes. And there were dozens of them, as opposed to a single principal. Even if one kid had a grudge against a teacher or just blew off the survey, his response alone couldn’t sway the average.”

So when we are considering teacher evaluations, student survey are both gosh darn on point and helpful in providing feedback that will lead to teacher growth.  Thinking about evaluations in the context of Stage 1 of our framework, that matters.

The take home message is this: we need evaluations that don’t just tell us which teachers are strong and which teachers are weak We need evaluations that will help teachers grow because ultimately that translates into better learning for students.  Therefore when it comes to conversations about New York City or another evaluation system, let’s not just get stuck on whether or not it is an accurate predictor of what students will do at the end of the year, but rather if it helping to build the capacity in teachers that leads to the best learning possible.

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Categories: News and Trends, Stage 1: Adult Learning and Leadership

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