Across the country, education reformers and their allies in both parties have revamped the way teachers are graded, abandoning methods under which nearly everyone was deemed satisfactory, even when students were falling behind.
More than half of states now require new teacher evaluation systems and, thanks to a deal announced last week in Albany, New York City will soon have one, too.
The changes are intended to provide meaningful feedback and, to critically weed out weak performers.
Some of the early results:
In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or highly effective in the most recent evaluations. In Tennessee, 98 percent of teachers were judged to be “at expectations.” In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better.
Education reform advocates concede that such rosy numbers, after many millions of dollars developing the new systems and thousands of hours of training, are worrisome.
“It is too soon to say that we’re where we started and it’s all been for nothing,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy organization. “But there are some alarm bells going off.”
The new evaluation systems, a central achievement of the reform movement, generally rate teachers on a combination of student progress, including their test scores, and observations by principals or others. The Obama administration has encouraged states to adopt the new methods through grant programs like Race to the Top.
Principals, who are often responsible for the personal-observation part of the grade, generally are not detached managerial types prone to give teachers low marks.
“There’s a real culture shift that has to occur and there’s a lot evidence that that hasn’t occurred yet,” Jacobs said.
But even the part of the grade that was intended to be objective, how students perform on standardized tests, has proved tricky. In part, this is because tests have changed so much in recent years — and are still changing because of the new “Common Core” curriculum standards that most states have adopted — that administrators have been unwilling to set the test-score bar too high for teachers. In many states, consecutive “ineffective” ratings are grounds for firing.
“We have changed proficiency standards 21 times in the last six years,” Jackie Pons, the schools superintendent for Leon County, Fla., said. In the county, 100 percent of the teachers were rated “highly effective” or “effective.”
“How can you evaluate someone in a system when you change your levels all the time?” Pons asked.
Until recently, Florida teachers were typically observed once a year for about 20 minutes and deemed satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Roughly 100 percent of them were rated satisfactory in 2010-11. Florida districts are spending $43 million in federal Race to the Top grant money on devising and beginning new methods.
Generally, 50 percent of the evaluation is now based on administrators’ observations of teachers and 50 percent on student growth as measured by test scores (districts can alter that ratio to some extent). For the observation part, teachers are no longer rated simply on “classroom management” and “planning,” but rather on 60 specific elements, including “engaging students in cognitively complex tasks involving hypothesis generation” and “testing and demonstrating value and respect for low expectancy students.”
The new evaluation systems have been closely scrutinized in the education world by policymakers, publications like Education Week, and foundations that have provided money to help perfect the methods.
Education reformers insist the evaluations help to identify and remove ineffective teachers, while offering more feedback for teachers to improve their practice.
But teachers’ unions have fought to make sure job assessments do not rely too heavily on testing data, contending that the data are prone to errors.
Despite any hiccups, principals and education officials said the new systems had helped them better discern specific teaching weaknesses.
In Michigan, Dr. Joseph A. Martineau, executive director for the Bureau of Assessment and Accountability in the state Education Department said that even with all the system’s flaws, many of which will be corrected under new legislation, the 0.8 percent of teachers deemed ineffective last year translated to nearly 800 teachers who will be in jeopardy of losing their jobs.
“There’s a possibility, a real possibility, that students will have a more effective teacher,” he said.