Teacher Evaluations: Where They Went Awry

Teacher evaluations have become one of the most controversial education issues today. Here’s why.
Student test scores are used to evaluate teachers across America. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Mar 19, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Teacher evaluations are a tricky, complicated, and at times, unfair business.

No two education academics seem to agree on the right way to judge a teacher’s performance in the classroom. Should they tie evaluations to student academic success and test scores? Perhaps, some argue, teachers should evaluate themselves. In other corners of the academic universe—and among teachers themselves—the entire evaluation process is a joke.

“Many scholars agree that current methods of quantifying teacher and school effectiveness (including annual administrative reviews and student test scores) are not working,” Dr. Edward Fierros, chair of Villanova University’s Department of Education and Counseling, told TakePart.

He listed several limitations of teacher evaluations, including the failure to provide a comprehensive review of teacher instructional practices, a failure to provide specific feedback on teacher strengths and areas for improvement, instability of value-added statistical models, and a failure to distinguish superior teachers from weak teachers.

As early as the 18th century, historians cite that teaching was an undertaking in which feedback was needed in order to create better education environments. The debate on how to offer feedback has varied widely since then, becoming ever more convoluted.

Scientific approaches began before World War II, but the 1940s ushered in an era that focused on the teacher as an individual with “democratic ideals” who needed “opportunities for initiatives.”

In the late 1950s and 1960s, that model shifted to “clinical supervision.” When the now-famous Hunter Model for education later evolved, schools around the country adopted it as a way to both teach and evaluate. Using seven lessons, teachers were evaluated on whether they successfully used the Hunter model.

Hunter's ideas were meant to transform classrooms into a stronger learning environment, help kids learn faster, and advise teachers on how to utilize positive reinforcement and discipline.

Then came the RAND study in the 1980s, which determined what types of supervisory and evaluation practices were actually occurring in school districts across the United States. Many academics thought the RAND study made sense. It noted that administrators should examine the goals and purpose of the educational system and align the system to those ends. It also said that states “should not adopt highly prescriptive systems.”

A decade later teaching to the test was trendy, and now it has become the norm. Even President Barack Obama’s education agenda seeks to “hold individual teachers accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests.”

After all the studies and changes over the last decades, the common evaluation system of teaching to the test is wracked with controversy.

Dr. Nicole Gillespie, executive director of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, told TakePart that simple value-added models that tie teacher effectiveness to test scores have a number of flaws that are likely to lead to deep and lasting damage to the educational system. While the stakes tied to teacher evaluation—teacher pay, job security etc.—are increasing, teaching to a single test score is unbalanced.

Some academics point out that only 39 percent of teachers are satisfied in their jobs.

“I know of a school in the Bronx where more than a third of the teachers are on medication for depression or anxiety because of the relentless pressure to improve test scores with student populations who are themselves experiencing extreme poverty and instability,” Mark D. Naison, professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University, told Take Part. “But though the worst consequences are in schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers in suburban and rural districts are also feeling intolerable pressure.”

That issue is even coming up in state houses across the country. This week, a Florida Senate panel voted unanimously to advance a bill that would rewrite the state’s current evaluation system, which uses a complex formula that ties evaluations to school-wide or district-wide averages. Teachers are anxiously lobbying for evaluations to be tied to their own individual merits. The current method will be tied to teacher pay raises by the 2014-15 school year.

Such systems like the current one in Florida, Fierros says, simply doesn’t work.

“What is clear from the research on existing and proposed value-added measures is that they are poor and unreliable in determining whether a teacher or school is effective,” he said. “Value-added measures are heavily influenced by the achievement levels of students in the classroom.”

Administrators must help teachers improve while also basing assessments on multiple classroom observations as well as data.

“By providing more timely and meaningful data to teachers, especially novice teachers, there is a greater likelihood of teacher improvement and thus greater teacher effectiveness,” he said.