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The Widget Effect: Where Every Teacher is Above Average

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The New Teacher Project has come out with a report on teacher evaluation just in time to inform the debate as School District and PFT tackle that issue among others in the ongoing (and secret) negotiations.

In the hope that somebody involved in those talks reads The Notebook and is keeping up with the latest research and recommendations on important topics relevant to the contract, here is a link to the TNTP study. The Notebook’s last edition is all about teacher quality and includes my piece on teacher evaluation.

The conclusions of the TNTP report are not surprising. Based on data analysis as well as surveys in four states and 12 districts (not including Philadelphia) of 15,000 teachers and 1,300 administrators, it concludes that public schools “fail to distinguish great teaching from good, good from fair, and fair from poor. A teacher’s effectiveness – the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement – is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way.”

Most teachers, more than nine in ten, routinely receive good evaluations regardless of a school or district’s overall academic achievement record. In most districts, the report says, high ratings are so common, they become expected, and low ratings are perceived as a personal attack. “Schools find themselves in a vicious cycle; administrators generally do not accurately evaluate poor performance, leading to an expectation of high performance ratings, which, in turn, cause administrators to face stiff cultural resistance when they do issue even marginally negative evaluations. The result is a dysfunctional school community in which performance problems cannot be openly identified or addressed.”

Though few teachers are ever given low ratings, in the survey 81 percent of administrators and 58 percent of teachers said there is a tenured teacher in their school who is performing poorly. Less than half the educators – 49 percent of teachers and 44 percent of administrators – believe that their district enforces a high standard of teaching.

One of the districts in the study was Toledo, Ohio, which has a peer evaluation system in which teachers play a role in observing and rating their colleagues, providing remediation and participating in decisions on whether to dismiss or grant tenure. Among the few facts we know or can deduce about the current negotiating process is the tidbit that members of the district and union teams have visited Toledo to learn more about the system there. The PFT especially is said to be very high on it. (It is good news indeed that the negotiators at least recognize that Philly’s system needs improvement and are looking at alternatives; that has not been the case before.)

But this report does not find that the Toledo system has been particularly successful in identifying and dismissing the poor performers. According to the report, just three teachers out of 1105 were rated unsatisfactory between 03-04 and 07-08.

The American Federation of Teachers, the PFT’s parent, issued a press release expressing relief that the TNTP report didn’t call for “quick fixes,” including tying teacher effectiveness to test scores. The release agreed with most of the report’s aims and recommendations. It disputed, however, its conclusion about the Toledo system, citing research by Harvard researcher Susan Johnson showing that the peer evaluation system has indeed resulted in some 5 percent of novice (non-tenured) teachers being counseled out of the profession.

However, the TNTP report makes a bigger point: that systems don’t use the what is now a generally perfunctory evaluation process to inform decisions regarding professional development, compensation, tenure (except for Toledo), or layoffs, when they are necessary. Worse, there is no way to recognize excellence.

Its recommendations include adopting a comprehensive performance evaluation system that “fairly, accurately and credibly differentiates teachers based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement.” Other recommendations include improved training for administrators and other evaluators; holding them accountable for using it effectively; integrating the evaluation system with teacher assignment, professional development, compensation, retention and dismissal; and the adoption of dismissal policies that make it easier for ineffective teachers to exit the district.

“As in other professions, teachers who see significant, credible evidence of their own failure to meet standards are likely to exit voluntarily,” the report says.

Most of these things are easier said than done. But facing the issue seriously is a good first step.