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Teacher in a Strange Land: A Few Thoughts About Teacher Evaluations Without Testing Data

There’s a bill on MI Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s desk that would—among other good, constructive things—end the mandated practice of evaluating teachers using their students’ test data. Most recently, 40% of a MI public school educator’s annual evaluation was tied to standardized test scores. Getting rid of that (and the myriad ways that it was subverted, in practice) is definitely a policy upgrade. Hallelujah.

The next question is always: What will replace test data-based teacher evaluations? And that’s a vastly more interesting topic—how and why should teachers be evaluated? You need both the how and the why to think out of the checklist-of-skills box here.

Yes, teachers’ work must be monitored and assessed, to meet a minimal level of competence, as a critical, publicly funded service. But—are there ways to enhance teachers’ effectiveness embedded in an evaluation process? Is it possible to improve teachers’ practice in the process of checking on them? That’s the gold standard. But is it reality?

From a pretty good piece on the proposed changes in teacher evaluation in Michigan:

Districts would be able to use their own criteria for evaluating teachers, such as classroom observations, samples of student work, rubrics, and lesson plans.  Critics in the legislature (and let’s identify them by name: Republicans) say this plan is merely a return to what used to be—the good ol’ days when teachers got away with substandard practice because there were no teeth in district evaluation processes. But there is something to be said about evaluation criteria tailored to a teachers’ context and teaching assignment. After a couple of years, most teachers could, for example, write their own goals—and a first grade teacher’s goals around student literacy might be very different from the HS art teacher’s portfolio of student work samples.

The bills would de-emphasize evaluations as a factor in districts’ decisions to fire or demote teachers or deny them tenure. Districts seem to have little difficulty firing or shaming teachers these days, for all kinds of stupid, politicized reasons. For teachers lucky enough to have tenure, it’s not the guarantee of a job for life, as the right wing might have you believe. If a district wants and needs to fire a teacher, it’s possible to do that without testing data—in fact, taking away the test score excuse puts the onus on a district to do the work of gathering evidence of a teacher’s unsuitability.

The bills would require districts to take action against teachers who don’t improve after repeated interventions.  As districts should, even in a time when qualified teachers are not thick on the ground.

Michigan’s law on test scores and evaluations grew out of a push for greater accountability in education that began in the 2000s. Some advocacy groups theorized that more rigorous reviews would generate detailed feedback that could be used to improve teachers’ performance. The language here is interesting—“some advocacy groups” and “detailed feedback.” Not much happens when an education advocacy group has a good idea (like using a non-threatening evaluation and mentoring process to build teacher capacity). The groups that get traction for their ideas do so through legislation. And only legislators bent on proving that lack of accountability is the problem would believe that standardized testing data represents detailed feedback on how well a teacher is doing in the actual classroom.

Critics are concerned that de-emphasizing student test scores could lower standards for teachers while students are still struggling to recover from pandemic learning loss and need high-quality instruction. This concept—“lowering standards for teachers”—is comical in a time when districts are thrilled to be re-hiring retirees, rather than relying on uncertified long-term subs. And shame on any media outlet for buying into the idea that students are suffering from learning loss (as measured by the same testing data that doesn’t identify outstanding teaching). Of course, students need high-quality instruction. They have always needed high-quality instruction. Let’s figure out a way to give them more of it.  

Proponents of returning to the old evaluation method say there is no evidence to suggest the current system benefits students, and that tying ratings to test scores contributes to burnout amid persistent teacher shortagesBingo. Although it’s optimistic, one can hope that districts will take the opportunity to modify their ‘old’ evaluation systems, since tying ratings to test scores didn’t get our hard-working teachers to miraculously raise either. Ten years of data analysis, no uptick in scores.

Let’s go back to the gold standard: an evaluation process that would improve teacher practice. It’s a huge—and evergreen—issue in building teacher capacity, and there is no shortage of, umm, advocacy groups that would like to take on that challenge (and then sell their thinking, materials and workshops to districts).

I’ve always been a fan of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ assessment, but it’s complex, time-consuming and expensive, and needs to be renewed every five years. Moreover, it was created for experienced teachers—an opportunity to stretch and grow and be recognized for your exemplary practice. It’s not designed for novice teachers, and it’s especially not useful for teachers who are struggling.

It’s worth noting that tracking student test data to teacher performance is not only useless, but expensive. Freeing up districts to create their own, multi-phase, divergent forms of evaluation could be a cost savings (but a lot of different work). While buying an off-the-shelf evaluation system is the easiest option, a high-functioning district, with adequate staffing, might be able to do some good work, building a system that runs from an intentional induction phase, to using skilled veterans to partner with newer teachers.

When I think about teacher evaluation, I remember Deming’s first principle: First, drive out all fear. If changing the law does nothing more than that, it will be a success.

The bill dumping test scores as a mandated factor in teacher evaluation is part of a wave of edu-changes including making charter school teacher salaries public, eliminating third grade retention for students testing below grade level in reading, ending the practice of giving schools letter grades and giving underwater districts debt relief.

All of these will matter in the fight to improve and strengthen public education. Just as much as teacher evaluation.


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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...