Guest column: Schools need help to better support and evaluate teachers

By Amber Arellano/Education Trust-Midwest

Students in Michigan are increasingly falling behind their peers in other states, including states that are making major investments in their teachers.

Michigan, meanwhile, has struggled to develop its teachers. A report by my organization, the nonprofit Education Trust-Midwest, helps to explain why: Our local school districts and charter schools have diligently tried, but failed, to produce constructive, reliable teacher evaluation systems that lead to real classroom improvements for students.

The good news is state political and educational leaders have a chance in the coming months to create Michigan’s first teacher support and evaluation system, with a focus on giving teachers the feedback and training they deserve -- yet so often fail to receive.

If we’re serious as a state about raising student learning, there is nothing more important than investing in strategies to help our teachers improve. Research shows that teaching quality is the most important in-school factor in a student’s success.

Unlike leading states, Michigan lacks a common definition of effective teaching, leaving it up to every school, administrator or teacher preparation program to develop their own visions of quality teaching. That must change.

What will it take? Three things:

* This winter, the Legislature and Governor’s Office must fund a serious, research-based teacher evaluation system for use by next fall.

* Experts on the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness must develop such a system by the spring, including rigorous state standards for those local districts and charters that seek to use their own model. The state must also provide feedback and oversight, particularly in the first years of implementation.

* The Legislature needs to approve the council’s work by June 2013.

Clearly, the patchwork of local evaluation systems isn’t cutting it. Our report examined the quality of more than two dozen systems created by local districts and charters across Michigan for the 2011-12 school year. Despite their hard work, these systems all lacked at least one key, research-based component that would ensure high-quality evaluation and professional development.

That’s not a knock on local officials – they simply do not have the expertise or the capacity to develop these complex systems.

Where did these systems falter?

* Reliability. State law requires that part of a teacher’s evaluation be based on how much students learn during the school year. Yet not one of the 28 models surveyed contained a student growth measure that was technically sound. Some schools also did not apply the same performance criteria to all teachers.

* Master teachers. Smart evaluation takes time that many administrators lack. Michigan must develop new roles for high-performing teachers to assist administrators with evaluations and share their expertise with colleagues.

* Clear methods and feedback. Many districts or charter networks used checklist-style observation forms that tell teachers almost nothing about how they might improve. Most systems also were unclear on how to combine student growth with other performance measures. Teachers may not get fair evaluations without proper scoring frameworks.

Despite these challenges, we recognize that much good is coming out of local efforts to develop evaluation systems. Still, our schools clearly need the guidance and resources that leading states provide. Michigan leaders need to ensure that greater accountability for teacher performance comes with greater support. To make teacher evaluations truly about helping teachers improve, we also need to ensure that individual teacher evaluation ratings will not be released to the public. Why is this so important?  By forcing schools to make such information public, as a new bill proposes, it would have a chilling effect on districts' efforts to give honest evaluations, which would help prevent struggling teachers from getting the help that they need. That would be a disservice to everyone, especially children.

It is imperative that Michigan gets this work right. It’s important to teachers, who work long hours and never stop trying to get better. And it’s essential for students, whose academic futures are inextricably tied to teacher performance.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

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Thu, 11/29/2012 - 10:30am
One of the problems with teacher evaluations as the system is now, is that they are 100% subjective! Some principals just rate all teachers in a building the same so none of them will be upset, or can accuse him of playing favorites. Not fair!
Thu, 11/29/2012 - 11:41am
I agree with Ms Arellano that Michigan is no where near able to determine what an effective teacher is, but holding up states that have developed a common definition is not necessarily a good thing. Current definitions of effective teachers are often disconnected from research, overly politicized, reductionist and ultimately counter productive to learning. Maybe we shouldn't even be talking about effective teachers, but effective teaching instead. We have learned that effective teaching requires strong classroom management skills that create a community of learners, deep content knowledge, well developed pedagogical skills and ongoing, effective support. In other words, if we want teachers to create a community of learners, those teachers must be part of a community of professionals.
david zeman
Thu, 11/29/2012 - 12:58pm
Ann, We agree that cookie-cutter evaluation results are part of the problem. Some other teaches may also feel that they are unfairly marked down because the principal may not like them. The reform that we at the Education Trust-Midwest are recommending would actually help to insulate teachers from arbitrary, subjective evaluations in a number of ways. Among them: 1) The new evaluations would be based on multiple components, including more reliable "student growth" measurements that would take into consideration outside factors such as poverty, learning challenges, etc., for individual students so that teachers would not be punished for teaching more difficult or lower-performing students. 2) These evaluations will also include richer, more nuanced classroom observation tools, which are incredibly important. As you may already know, teachers have long complained that they are rarely observed or, more commonly, their observations include cursory, checklist-style forms filled out by harried principals, which provide teachers with little or no useful information on how to get better. Under the new evaluation and support system now being developed by education experts for the state, all teachers will be evaluated at least once annually, with multiple evaluations for new or struggling teachers. 3) The language in the observations will be more informative. Most important, the new system will create -- incredibly, for the first time -- a common definition of what effective teaching looks like in Michigan. So, for instance, the definition for what an effective fourth-grade math teacher looks like will be the same in Traverse City as it is in Dearborn or Holland or Kalkaska. Checklist-style forms will be replaced by richer narrative descriptions for different parts of teaching practice, which will lead to more and deeper conversations and feedback between teachers and principals and teachers and fellow teachers. 4) It's also important to note that school leaders will also be effectively and reliably evaluated under the reform measures being put in place. This will help address the concern over a subjective evaluation. 5) Under this system, teachers will come to understand, if they don't already, that teacher evaluation is not about punishing teachers, it's not a "gotcha" system for firing them. It's about creating the space for more honest evaluations that truly identify a teacher's strengths and weaknesses and getting them the feedback and professional development that will help them get better. We know that the vast majority of Michigan teachers are hard-working professionals who want to get better, whether they are rookies or 20-year veterans. The system and standards now being developed by the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness will help to improve teaching, which will have a direct impact on raising student achievement in Michigan. David Zeman Communications Director The Education
Charles Richards
Thu, 11/29/2012 - 2:01pm
All teacher evaluation systems are flawed. There will always be cases of false negatives where teachers will be improperly rated as ineffective. Those must be balanced against false positives where teachers are improperly graded as effective. But for a given amount of resources devoted to evaluations, a ratio of the two must be chosen. That is the crucial judgment. It is true that the students themselves have much to do with how much they learn. But if two teachers get significantly different results from the same student population, then it can be assumed that one teacher is more effective than the other. Ms. Arellano properly puts a lot of emphasis on teacher evaluation and accountability, but she seems reluctant to acknowledge that some teachers may just not be very talented. No doubt everyone can derive some benefit from additional training and support, but those with ability will gain far more than the less able. Some people will not be worth the additional investment. They should be encouraged to pursue another career.
Mary Wood
Thu, 11/29/2012 - 3:15pm
Have you look into how the Education Achievement Authority plans on evaluating their teachers? With a $38 million grant from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) they certainly must have a plan in place. Is it a plan to model off from?
T.W. Donnelly
Fri, 11/30/2012 - 9:42am
Student test scores are heavily dependent on their background, general health, nutrition, and stability of the family structure in a safe home environment. Michigan is the home now of many student whose first language is not English. What magic wand exists that will make English as a Second Language students instantly function well in an English-language based series of tests? Michigan citizens need to take a step back and look at all the social factors that children bring to school each day.Are parents unemployed?Is there sufficient heat in the house so the child can sleep well at night? Is this a single parent family where the bread winner works afternoons or midnights? Until these social factors are folded into a general understanding of student performance in school, teacher evaluation based on student test scores will serve no useful purpose.
Chuck Fellows
Fri, 11/30/2012 - 11:32am
Current efforts to develop teacher evaluation systems are repeating the failed processes of ranking and rating that private sector management’s use and consultants love to sell. These systems simply do not result in the improvement of the process, never have and never will. At best they present an individual manager’s biased viewpoint of how the world should work. “Here, then, is what is wrong with performance appraisal. In the era of total quality, performance appraisal supports obsolete values with dysfunctional methods. Specifically, performance appraisal 1. Disregards and, in fact, undermines, teamwork. 2. Disregards the existence of a system. It encourages individuals to squeeze or circumvent the system for personal gain rather than improve it for collective gain. 3. Disregards variability in the system and, indeed, increases variability in the system. 4. Uses a measurement system that is unreliable and inconsistent. 5. Encourages an approach to problem-solving that is superficial and culprit-oriented. 6. Tends to establish an aggregate of safe goals -- a ceiling of mediocrity -- in an organization. 7. Creates losers, cynics, and wasted human resources. 8. Seeks to provide a means to administer multiple managerial functions (pay, promotion, feedback communications, direction-setting, etc.), yet it is inadequate to accomplish any one of them.” Source: which, if you really want to understand what is necessary to produce “quality” results, is excellent reading and guidance regarding “performance review” or “evaluation”. Do your homework! Or at least make a sincere attempt to understand what it is you are attempting to accomplish before imposing yet another mind numbing unfunded bureaucratic nightmare upon teachers and our children. The purpose of education is not the satisfaction of a desire to rank and rate stuff and people or compliance with some externally generated assessment policy. It's about learning, or has everyone involved in "education" conveniently forgotten about that.
Scott Baker
Sun, 12/02/2012 - 3:45pm
Just because the Education Trust - Midwest is a non-profit doesn't mean they don't have an agenda. The Education Trust is funded by the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family etc. - the same corporate interests that forced No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core State Standards Initiative on us in their continued attempts to push parents and educators aside, destroy public education, and replace it with for-profit schooling. Question - What would be even better than producing sheep that grow lots of wool and show up to be shorn of it without a lot of bleating? Answer - Having the sheep pay for their grass, pay shepherd, pay to be shorn, and then selling them wool sweaters once the weather turns cold. The primary aim of compulsory schooling since its earliest days has been to produce an obedient workforce. Our history of strong local control over education has blunted this effort. What parents wants in an education for their child is very different than the schooling a boss wants for a future employee. Over the last two decades, local control has been legislatively bulldozed aside at the behest of the National Business Roundtable. I had hoped that Bridge Magazine was sincere in its claim that it wished to involve all sides in the discussion over education reform, but the amount of space given to Education Trust and other corporate-funded organizations, and the lack of input from parents and teachers, reveals Bridge Magazine to be just another mouthpiece for the corporate-school movement.