You know something in education is broken when both ends of the political spectrum are saying the same thing about it. The hot-button issue of teacher evaluations is a duel between the left, which believes they are ineffective in identifying excellence or negligence, and the right, which believes that this evaluation dysfunction makes it nearly impossible to get bad teachers out of classrooms.
When you dig beneath the surface bluster of competing political views on how classroom teachers in public schools should be evaluated, you find agreement on one point: All students deserve highly qualified teachers who are effective in leading classrooms in which students make academic progress.
But that’s where the consensus ends.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, recently analyzed the relevant state and local policies and practices in 25 diverse school districts to learn how they enable or constrain the dismissal of ineffective veteran teachers. The institute learned that in 17 of the districts, teachers can earn tenure and keep it regardless of performance, and in 12 districts, dismissing an ineffective teacher takes a minimum of two years.
The institute created a ranking of districts, scoring them on whether ineffective teachers were easy or feasible to dismiss, or difficult or very difficult to dismiss. Not surprisingly, school districts with reputations for the poorest student performance — such as Chicago Public Schools, New York City Public Schools and the Los Angeles Unified School District — have policies making it very difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.
It would seem unimpeachable to say that maximal protections for poorly performing teachers should be changed. But the prevailing argument on the left is that stringent protections ensure that good teachers who are more highly paid aren’t made easily expendable. The problem with this, of course, is how to define a “good teacher.”
Recent Brown University research on Race to the Top-era teacher evaluation reforms and their impact on measures of teacher effectiveness found that in 19 districts that adopted major reforms in how teachers were evaluated, less than 3 percent of teachers were rated below proficient. Compare this to 2009 data, which had found that less than 1 percent of teachers were rated as unsatisfactory but 81 percent of administrators and 57 percent of teachers could identify a teacher in their school who was ineffective.
Several studies have characterized teacher evaluation as a superficial exercise that fails to assess instructional quality or inform teacher professional development and personnel decisions. The Brown University researchers concluded: “The design of teacher evaluation systems has changed substantially over the last five years, but it appears that evaluation norms and practices are proving much more difficult to change.”
They blame the failure to differentiate between effective and weak teachers on conscious choices by evaluators who are burdened with “implementation challenges, competing interests, unintended consequences and perverse incentives” like being uncomfortable telling teachers they are not cutting it, inadvertently making them less receptive to suggestions on how to improve their instruction and even generating racial tensions.
Without such objective criteria for teacher evaluations, teachers cannot feel good about being observed and given constructive advice on how to better themselves. And teacher unions cannot be confident that administrators won’t use subjective observation data to usher expensive, seasoned teachers out the door in favor of cheaper, newer teachers when budgets get tight.
Until teacher evaluations can be reliable, apolitical and rigorous — and provide accountability while being objective and fair — fixing systems where ineffective teachers are almost impossible to fire will continue to be a pipe dream.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.