Next Steps for Teacher Evaluation Reform

Matthew Kraft, an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University, has researched teacher evaluation reform extensively, through surveys of principals and multiple studies of state teacher-rating systems. FutureEd Director Thomas Toch spoke with Kraft to get his perspectives on the teacher evaluation landscape. Below, he talks about the value of having multiple rating categories for teacher evaluation:

It’s completely true that the percentage of teachers who are rated unsatisfactory or ineffective has barely budged after the reforms, with a few notable exceptions.

That said, these new reforms created multiple rating categories. One of them is between a proficient rating and an unsatisfactory rating—a so-called “developing,” or “needs improvement” rating. And there is a non-trivial amount of teachers that receive that rating, up to 4 to 5 percent. We’re talking about one out of 20 teachers that we’re identifying as someone who formally has been signaled [via evaluation ratings] that they need to continue to improve their practice to meet standards.

Focusing on the total percentage of teachers who are rated above unsatisfactory also masks the value of differentiating at the high end. Under the reforms, we now talk in many states about teachers being “exemplary” and “distinguished,” above and beyond some of their colleagues who are also succeeding at their jobs and serving kids well. Just having that conversation around differences in effectiveness and performance opens the door for continued improvement beyond just being proficient.

Most states, when they wrote their Race to the Top plans and rolled out new evaluation systems in districts, didn’t emphasize that the purpose was to identify low-performing teachers and move them out of the profession. They framed it as a system to help good teachers become great. They talked about [improved evaluations] being a development tool. And there’s where I think the new systems have fallen short of their potential.

We have not systematically built on teachers’ strengths and helped them improve on weaknesses in a non-punitive way that gives teachers the sense that they can be transparent rather than defensive about their struggles, for fear that what they say might be later used against them in a high-stakes decision.

In the end, evaluating out low-performing teachers is somewhat of a red herring. Even if that went as well as some reformers wished, it’s not going to dramatically move the needle [on a school district’s teacher performance]. What we have to do is to take the vast majority of teachers who are good and help them become great. That’s an incredibly hard thing to do because teaching is a very complex task.

But there’s no doubt that knowing what teachers are struggling with and what they excel in is a part of the process. The evaluation reforms have moved us in the direction of developing rigorous observational instruments and better data systems to track these things. There’s a lot of ancillary data infrastructure that we now have, which is a great thing. We need to be able to build on that with an emphasis towards supporting teacher improvement.

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