Curious Grade for Teachers: Nearly All Pass
Sarah Beth Glicksteen for The New York Times
The changes, already under way in some cities and states, are intended to provide meaningful feedback and, critically, to weed out weak performers. And here are some of the early results: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.
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.
Advocates of education reform 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 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.
The teachers might be rated all above average, like students in Lake Wobegon, for the same reason that the older evaluation methods were considered lacking. Principals, who are often responsible for the personal-observation part of the grade, generally are not detached managerial types and can be loath to give teachers low marks.
“There’s a real culture shift that has to occur and there’s a lot of evidence that that hasn’t occurred yet,” Ms. Jacobs said.
But even the part of the grade that was intended to be objective, how students perform on standardized tests, has proved squishy. In part, this is because tests have changed so much in recent years — and are changing still, 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?” Mr. 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.”
One Leon County principal, Melissa Fullmore of Ruediger Elementary school in Tallahassee, said that had it been solely up to her, one or two of her teachers would have been graded “highly effective,” the top category. Three would have been marked “needs improvement,” one rung up from the bottom, and the rest would have fallen under “effective.”
But because Leon County set the test-score bar so low, when their marks came out, all but one were highly effective, and the other was categorized as effective. “I wouldn’t put stock in the numbers,” Ms. Fullmore said.
The same was true at Springwood Elementary School nearby. “We had three or four teachers that were rated as ‘needs improvement’ on the observation, but due to changes in the cut scores, they were all bumped up to effective,” Dr. Christopher Small, the principal, said.
Officials in another county, Alachua, set scores relatively high, but when only 78 percent of teachers were deemed highly effective or effective, and when they saw how lenient other districts were, they set them much lower; ultimately, 99.4 percent of teachers were rated effective or highly effective. “It’s inconsistent, it’s unfair and it’s unscientific,” the superintendent, Dan Boyd, wrote in a letter to The Gainesville Sun criticizing how the state’s new evaluations had been carried out.
Kathy Hebda, Florida’s deputy chancellor for educator quality, said: “Directionally, we are off to a good start. But we have pockets in the state where we need attention.”
Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said variations in teacher quality had been proven to affect student academic growth. If an evaluation system is not finding a wider distribution of effectiveness, “it is flawed,” he said.
“It would be an unusual profession that at least 5 percent are not deemed ineffective,” he added.
The new evaluation systems have been closely scrutinized in the education world by policy makers, publications like Education Week, and foundations that have provided money to help perfect the methods.
Education reformers insist they 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 evaluations do not rely too heavily on testing data, contending that the data are prone to errors. (In Florida’s first go-round with the new evaluations, for example, some teachers had to be rated based on students in their school, but not in their classrooms, because there was not enough data for their own students.) The linking of teachers’ employment, and sometimes their pay, to test scores has also been blamed for sporadic incidents of cheating, and on Friday, 35 Atlanta educators, including the former superintendent, were indicted in a what prosecutors called a widespread scheme of doctoring students’ answers.
In January, talks between the Bloomberg administration and the New York City teachers’ union fell apart, costing the city about $250 million in state aid. Last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders announced measures designed to help put an evaluation system in place.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that even though the data from these systems “was not ready for prime time,” it proved what she had long argued: That the majority of teachers are very good.
“Maybe this information will debunk the myth about bad teachers,” she said.
In New Haven, Conn., where the teachers’ union collaborated with the school district in devising the new evaluation system, 90 percent of teachers were rated “exemplary,” “strong” or “effective,” and 2 percent received the lowest rating, “needs improvement.”
As part of the program, teachers are warned months ahead of time if they are in danger of receiving the lowest mark; some improved, and some left.
Washington, D.C., like New York a center of education reform, was among the first to try new evaluations, replacing a system under which 95 percent of teachers were meeting expectations and 0.4 percent received the lowest rating.
Three years ago, when the new method began, only 82 percent of teachers were rated as effective or highly effective. Two percent were rated ineffective and the rest “minimally effective.”
Most recently, 89 percent received one of the top two ratings, and only 1 percent were ineffective, which Scott Thompson, the deputy chief of human capital for teacher effectiveness for D.C. public schools, said was evidence that the evaluations were making teachers better.
“We are seeing improvements in practice,” he said, noting that 400 teachers had been fired as a result of the new system, and several hundred had left voluntarily after weak ratings.
Despite any hiccups, principals and education officials said the new systems had helped them better discern specific teaching weaknesses. Dr. Small, from Springwood Elementary School in Florida, said he had more detailed feedback to offer teachers.
“I can identify an aspect of their teaching and work on that element versus the catchall from before,” he said.
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