New teacher evaluation systems are an increasingly common aspect of teachers’ daily lives. To ensure that all students have access to quality teaching, the vast majority of states have adopted new, more rigorous teacher evaluation systems over the past five years based on multiple measures of teacher performance, such as evidence of student learning and observations of classroom practice. These new systems hold enormous potential to inform ongoing teacher growth and support, particularly through their ability to provide feedback on teaching practice. However, to date, most of the public narrative—and teacher pushback—surrounding evaluation has centered on its use for rating teachers in an effort to inform high-stakes personnel decisions, such as pay, promotion, and dismissal.
Given this, some might be puzzled, or even bristle, at the suggestion that data from evaluation systems could be used to drive instructional improvement. But the federal policies that spurred these new systems always intended for them to be as much about accountability as support. In fact, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently found that 30 states and Washington DC have put policies in place requiring evaluation to inform teacher development.
If this is the case, why is teacher development still missing from the public narrative on—and most teachers’ daily experience of—evaluation? Are states fully harnessing evaluation systems’ potential for improvement? And what supporting policies and practices have they put in place to do so? We decided to find out by conducting in-depth interviews with leaders in nearly all of those states first identified by NCTQ.
A new report released today, Beyond Ratings: Re-envisioning State Teacher Systems as Tools for Professional Growth, finds that even those 31 states (including Washington DC) that have a policy requiring evaluation to be linked to teacher development vary widely in the supporting policies that can help local education agencies (LEAs) make the link. For instance, 22 of the 31 states require annual evaluations, but only 9 require multiple observations annually for all teachers, which can limit how often teachers receive feedback on their practice. Similarly, states vary in their requirements for the training and certification of evaluators—a critical foundation for ensuring educators receive feedback that they can trust. And only about half of these states have policies in place that promote formal development structures, such as teacher professional growth plans, for all teachers. And the other half only require them for struggling teachers reinforcing a notion that “improvement” is something to be singled out for when not performing well, rather than something all teachers do as part of an orientation toward ongoing learning.
But even for states with the most promising set of policies in place, policy alone cannot ensure that feedback is high-quality and connected to professional learning. Beyond Ratings explains how states’ communication, support and monitoring of evaluation as a tool for professional growth can play a vital role in ensuring that LEAs capitalize on the information teacher evaluations provide to propel teacher—and student—growth. While no state has taken a comprehensive approach to all three of these strategies, some promising practices emerged from our conversations, and we found four states—Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, and Tennessee—that have used a combination of these strategies to strike a better balance between teacher support and accountability.
Colorado and Louisiana, for example, have made notable efforts in communicating the importance of teacher evaluations to teachers’ professional learning, and offer some support for school leaders who are helping connect the two. And to monitor this connection, Delaware and Tennessee collect feedback from teachers to assess how LEAs can improve their professional learning efforts tied to evaluation.
However, there is still room for all states to do more. Beyond Ratings recommends policy- and implementation-based actions states can take to strengthen the connection between evaluation and development. States are likely to see the biggest impact on both the narrative and the reality of their evaluation systems if they take a more comprehensive approach. However, we acknowledge that states’ spheres of influence, capacity, and constraints will vary. As such, these recommendations are largely intended to guide rather than prescribe, although we encourage states to identify those actions most likely to be high-impact in their context.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) designates states as the entity responsible for ensuring teachers meet their full potential, and provides states with the opportunity to thoughtfully refine their evaluation systems to include a clear focus on teacher support. While LEAs and schools will play the largest role in achieving this goal, those efforts will be more effective and more likely to happen at scale if states provide the policy and implementation supports required to move teacher evaluations beyond ratings.