From Good To Great: Teacher Evaluations For the Next Generation

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For a student contemplating a career in teaching, the stress over selecting the best education program is inherently related to her desire to be an effective teacher. After all, being effective means one's students are learning -- and being rated effective has implications for job security, salary, and opportunities for promotion. However, the definition of an effective teacher depends on whom you ask and in which state you teach.

For years, teacher evaluation was centered on the performance of teachers. They were locally driven tools to measure the performance and impact of teachers in order give feedback and direct resources toward professional development. These evaluations traditionally included samples of student work, lesson plans, and classroom observations.

But as Stephen Sawchuk of EdWeek sees it, a pivot from teacher-centered to student-centered evaluations came about due to "a wave of new research on teacher quality, philanthropic interest in boosting teacher effectiveness, efforts by advocacy groups and policymakers to revamp state laws on evaluation, and political pressure to dismiss poorly performing teachers."

Since 2009, Congress and state capitols across the United States have debated how to determine if a teacher is effective, and if student progress or proficiency (on standardized state tests especially in reading and mathematics) should be a factor in teacher evaluations. Currently 40 states require school districts to incorporate evidence of student learning into teacher evaluations, with most requiring measures of student learning to be a significant factor in such evaluations.

A recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) highlights the debate over the importance of using student performance in evaluating teacher effectiveness. The report, Running in Place: Teacher Evaluations Don't Live Up to Their Promise, compares how states rate teachers and how impactful evaluations are in differentiating the best teachers from the rest. Unfortunately, the authors find that "most states allow teachers to be rated effective even if they receive low scores on the student learning component of the evaluation."

Whoa. What should we make of this?

First, teacher evaluations are unlikely to completely disappear before you reach the classroom. The best thing you can do now is to understand what's sure to come. Teacher evaluations:

  • Include a variety of measures. These may include classroom observations, lesson plan reviews, student test scores, and student learning objectives (SLOs). No teacher evaluation is entirely composed of student achievement measures.
  • Inform district personnel decisions. In a majority of states, teachers can be dismissed for poor evaluations. But this decision typically comes after multiple years of little to no improvement even with extra support.
  • Can be unscheduled. Principals can do a walk-through observation or cancel your planned evaluation last minute.
  • Can be interactive. Sometimes, your principal will schedule pre-observation discussions with you, to set the stage beforehand, going over goals of the observations and asking you if there's anything in particular you'd like feedback on.
  • Provide feedback. Afterwards, you'll discuss the outcomes of the classroom observations, the overall evaluation, and the proposed next steps regarding professional development or intervention.
  • Vary in frequency. Not every state or district requires an observation for all teachers every year. For example, oftentimes teachers in their first three years are evaluated annually until earning tenure. Tenured teachers are evaluated less frequently.

You'll have plenty of opportunities in your teacher preparation program to talk about what teacher evaluations look like and how to best prepare. In the meantime, it doesn't hurt to stay current on the debate about teacher evaluation systems in your state.

Second, regardless of how your state's evaluation system accounts for student learning (as measured by state tests), you should focus on learning how to be effective. Do you know the burgeoning science of learning? Do you know how to teach reading to your elementary students? What if they're struggling? What if your students don't get fraction division? What about how to teach writing in middle and high school?

This is what a well designed and delivered teacher preparation program can provide for you, so you can be ready from day one.

-- Curtis Valentine