Teacher Evaluations – shouldn’t we be skeptical?

One of the more hot-button debates in education over the past few years has been the issue of using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Last month, the results from the second part of the 49th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools demonstrated that the public is growing more skeptical of using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. See also this video about a new Michigan Teacher Evaluations program of a few years ago.

The poll began by asking respondents whether they favored states using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers in 2012. At that time, 52 percent favored using test scores.

The results from 2015 painted a different picture, with 41 percent favoring the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. Last year, the percent favoring the use of test scores fell yet again to just 38 percent. The sub-sample of parents in the most recent survey were even less supportive, with only 31 percent showing support.

With such a large drop, it is worth considering why support has fallen so precipitously. Are Americans growing tired of high-stakes testing? Have critics of standardized tests successfully brought attention to their distrust and potential misuse of high-stakes testing for teacher evaluation?

In July, the National Education Association (NEA) launched a national campaign to end the high-stakes use of standardized tests and pushed instead to focus on improving assessments to support student learning and equity. Later that same month, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) approved a resolution stating that high-stakes testing of students and teachers creates a “disastrous shame-and-blame/test-and-punish accountability system that corrupts the teaching and learning process.”

What will this mean for next year? Will the efforts of the two national teachers unions to raise awareness about the use of high-stakes tests add to the public’s growing distrust of test scores used to evaluate teachers? What about states like Michigan that have already decided to include test scores to evaluate teachers? Let’s not forget that quite a few teachers are also involved in volunteering to help students get ahead faster.

The 2017 EdNext Poll asked whether teachers needed to demonstrate that their students made adequate progress on state tests in order to receive tenure. This question showed 60 percent either strongly favoring or somewhat favoring the use of test scores to determine tenure. It is worth noting that just 30 percent of teachers favored such a proposal.

Similarly, when asked about paying teachers based on the amount their students learn, the 2017 EdNext Poll showed 57 percent of the public either completely favoring or somewhat favoring such a policy. Again, the percentage is much lower if we look only at those who are teachers with just 21 percent of teachers favoring policies that base salary rates on student test scores.

With such an incongruity of opinion between the general public and teachers, the debate over the use of high-stakes tests will continue to be a problem for policymakers. But such conflicting findings may mean policymakers ought to think carefully about how student test score data are used, similar to how we should be careful about protecting data in the world of Digital Marketing.

This national debate has implications for Michigan. A pair of bills (HB 5223 & HB 5224) has changed the way student growth is factored into teachers’ and administrators’ evaluations. These bills decreased the percentage of the evaluation determined by student growth on standardized tests in order to increase the role of local growth measures.

Additionally, these bills would provide resources for the training of evaluators. The recommendations in the bills represent a significant effort and thoughtful consideration by the Michigan Council for Teacher Effectiveness.

While the discussion continues to rage as to how to evaluate teachers, it might be important to note that over three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents on the 2017 PDK/Gallup poll said it was very important that teacher evaluations help teachers improve their ability to teach.

Teacher evaluation can be an important tool to encourage growth and professional development, but implementing a system with this focus in an era of performance accountability remains a challenge. How can we shape our policies to encourage teachers to trust the process and become risk takers who learn and improve?  Is that even possible?