In March, Washington state lawmakers ended the legislative session without passing a bill to incorporate student test scores in teacher-principal evaluation systems. As a result, Washington became the first state to lose its No Child Left Behind waiver, along with control of $40 million in federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education requires states that have received waivers to use statewide standardized tests as a factor in evaluations.
Legislators need to move past the debate on whether to use testing data in evaluations. The failure to pass the bill puts Washington’s evaluation system behind the rest of the country. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia Public Schools have already changed their laws to require that measures of student achievement be a significant or the most significant factor in teacher evaluations. The new generation of evaluations is here to stay.
Critics can argue over what measures of student achievement are the most accurate, or how much these measures should factor into evaluation ratings. But these arguments miss the bigger picture: When executed properly, evaluations can help guide teachers’ professional development. Only after Washington state law is changed can lawmakers and district leaders begin focusing on what will really make a difference for our teachers and students: evaluations that help teachers get better.
So what is the key to maximizing an evaluation system’s potential to help teachers improve their craft? Important lessons can be drawn from early adopters of the new generation of evaluation systems. In the 2012-2013 academic year, an urban school district serving Houston piloted a system that incorporated both classroom observations and student learning measures.
I was part of a research team that worked with the Aldine Independent School District to study the outcomes of the pilot. Evaluation ratings were not used for employment decisions in the first year; instead, inexperienced and struggling teachers received more frequent classroom observations and feedback conferences to help them improve. The pilot provided a case study for how evaluation systems can guide professional development.
One of the challenges our research team encountered during the pilot year was implementing the evaluation system quickly enough for it to be helpful for teachers. Larger workloads made it difficult for principals in schools with many new or struggling teachers to keep up with the rollout timeline.
Unfortunately, failure to provide teachers with regular observations and constructive feedback may also result in increased teacher turnover, due to burnout and the perception that the evaluation system is for high-stakes hiring decisions only, rather than for professional development.
District leaders can support schools with high concentrations of new and struggling teachers by assigning additional administrative staff. An alternative solution is to institute a peer-assisted review program. Under this model, school districts train master teachers who conduct classroom observations and conferences with novice teachers.
Veteran teachers who have received high evaluation ratings can also serve as mentors for new teachers. Traditional mentoring focuses on providing new teachers with guidance in classroom management and opportunities to observe experienced teachers. With the introduction of an evaluation system, mentors can also support new teachers in managing the required documentation and incorporating evaluation feedback into their practice.
Comprehensive teacher evaluation systems have the potential to improve the quality of the teaching force and ultimately benefit student learning. Washington needs to move beyond theoretical debate about whether the evaluation system should be reformed and instead focus on the practical necessity of providing comprehensive support for administrators and teachers to thrive under the new systems.
Quality implementation of any policy requires considerable preparation and time — time that is quickly running out.
Rosaline Zhang of Bellevue worked with a research team studying teacher evaluations while pursuing her bachelor’s degree at University of Pennsylvania.