Grading teachers proves harder than thought

An annual performance review -- in which duties, accomplishments and expectations are weighed against a set of standards -- is a rite of passage for most Michiganians. And it's easy to do for, say, a car salesman. How many cars you sell? How much money did you make?

But for Michigan teachers, assessing performance and outcomes is proving anything but easy.

The Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness, established in 2011, is charged with establishing “a fair, transparent, and feasible evaluation system for teachers and school administrators,” according to their vision statement, a system “based on rigorous standards of professional practice and of measurement.”

The public, in large part, agrees.

According to survey results in a new report, “The Public’s Agenda on Public Education,” released this week by the nonprofit Center for Michigan*, large majorities of more than 7,000 Michigan residents consulted via townhall meetings and scientific opinion polls said they want to increase accountability for teachers, while giving them greater professional support and training.

As a participant in a CFM community conversation in the Lansing suburb of Haslett put it, “Accountability is crucial because there is no profession where people are not held accountable. If you don’t hit the objectives then a closer look can be taken to see what is going on. Without accountability then the oldest teacher wins and the new good teachers get pigeonholed.”

All of which sounds simple. It’s coming up with that fair, transparent and feasible evaluation system that gets complicated.

“From our very first meetings, we’ve been trying not to be naive about this,” said Mark Reckase, a professor of education at Michigan State University serving on the MCEE. “We knew it wouldn’t be simple.”

The MCEE expects to make its recommendations by this summer, more than a year past its original deadline.

Groups involved in the same work in other states are having equal difficulty. A pilot teacher-evaluation program in Georgia produced results with less than 1 percent of teachers rated as ineffective, a black eye for a project that has educators and administrators alike struggling with how to get it right. And last year, the first in which Michigan ranked all its educators, the effort came up with similarly lopsided results.

“You’re dealing with people,” said Martha Ann Todd, associate superintendent for teacher and leader effectiveness in the Georgia Department of Education. “It’s part art and part science. But there’s a strong research base that tell us there are specific things we can do to improve outcomes.”

Most teacher-evaluation models are broken into two parts. One is based on observation by a senior administrator, who will sit in a class and watch a teacher at work, ideally on more than one occasion, and grade their performance on a variety of metrics – classroom management, explanation of material, planning and preparation. etc. Several systems are already in use in many school districts, and the MCEE is evaluating them for effectiveness.

The other half is student achievement – how well students progress through the term under a given teacher. And as subjective as observation by one educator of another can be, student-achievement progress is even thornier. Students progress at different rates, and are influenced by myriad factors outside a teacher’s control, from nutrition to home environment to how well he or she may have slept the night before a test.

Will such a system be unfair to those who teach disadvantaged students? How to judge student progress in areas ranging from art to music to mathematics to social studies?

Add to that the fact that this sort of measurement of teachers is relatively new, and the delays and difficulties come into focus.

“The reason there are a lot (of methodologies) is, people are trying to make adjustments for the group of students assigned to a teacher. It’s far from random,” Reckase said. “There are all kinds of influences on how students achieve, and no one really knows the best way to do this,” said Reckase.

Traditionally, teachers are rewarded for seniority and education; more master’s degrees are awarded in education than any other field, and teachers with graduate degrees will watch their salaries rise with each one. But Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education and chair of the MCEE, says there’s no real link between a teacher’s level of education and better teaching.

“What the data show is that the current (degree) offerings increase knowledge and perspective (among teachers), but not necessarily student achievement,” Ball said.

What makes better teachers, Ball said, is training and feedback for improvement, and that’s what the new measurement models are trying to put in place.

The aim, Todd said, is not necessarily to identify incompetent teachers, but to help those with the potential to improve to do so.

“We’re behind on our timetable, too,” Todd said of the Georgia program. “This is huge, challenging work in so many ways, but it’s such worthwhile work. There’s no question in my mind that working on this is the right thing to do.”

Reckase suggested the American culture surrounding education could use an adjustment, too. Teachers – and teacher unions – make easy targets for critics of American schools, but in other countries, attitudes toward educators are quite different.

“In Taiwan, teachers and school administrators go to residential professional development every summer, for a number of weeks,” to compare theory and practice and share experience,” Reckase said.

“But that’s hard to bottle and transport.”

*The Center for Michigan is the parent organization of Bridge Magazine. 

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Wed, 01/23/2013 - 9:55am
I taught for a short time years ago. I often say to others, including some teachers, that people don't realize that teaching can be hard work, especially if you strive to do it right. I highly commend those who do a good job, who the students respect, and who wind up at the end of a school year with students who are better prepared to move up and eventually out into the world. But I also say that bad teachers need to realize there are not doing a good job and get out of teaching! They are not necessarily hurting themselves but they are definitely hurting the students, and America, by doing a poor job. Unfortunately our system makes it extremely difficult to get rid of bad teachers and that needs to change. I am glad that Michigan is at least attempting to raise the bar and have more accountability in the teaching profession.
Nancy Shiffler
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 1:19pm
There seems to be an assumption that the Georgia evaluation system wasn't working because it identified less that 1% of the state's teachers as ineffective. This is beginning to sound like grading on the curve -- we have to "fail" some predetermined percentage of teachers. That's not a fair system for students, and it shouldn't be a fair system for teachers.
div buegeleisen
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 2:13pm
If it is so difficult to tell who is a good teacher- how come my 5th grade students came back to visit and told me that their 6th grade teachers at middle school- could recognize that they came from my room. Also even though some of the children could do the math problems- almost none of them had any idea about the number system until I used manipulatives to show them.
Charles Richards
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 3:01pm
Measuring the effectiveness of teachers is indeed difficult. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times published in house evaluations of teachers and it was found that a given teacher might be ranked as above average one year, and average, or below the next year. Ms. Derringer asks "Will such a system be unfair to those who teach disadvantaged students?" Surely, allowances must be made for the differences in outcomes between upper middle class schools and those with poverty stricken students who come from dysfunctional families. But teachers can be held responsible for variations among students from the same background. "What makes better teachers, Ball said, is training and feedback for improvement, and that’s what the new measurement models are trying to put in place." This is not the case. Measurement is for determining how effective a teacher is and then measuring how much they have benefitted from additional training.
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 4:29pm
NO ALL Proverty Stricken Student come from dysfunction families Most of the children Have Father?mother that service in the military and ........ Teacher are not being given the Lesson In there Collegeclasses ....before the teach..mOthers teaching HOMESCHOOLING have children in College by age 16..SO PAY mothers >military moms First. P.S Einstein did kindergarten twice!
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 4:33pm
Till the STATE chances it polic of haveing ALL children pass each years (so schools get there funding Nothing will change.teacher need a free hand ...and student need to preform to move to next class.Nothing will shame/imporve a child more then keeping UP with there peers.(keeping up with the johns.sooo)
Wed, 01/23/2013 - 5:16pm
In industry and business, performance is based on results and observable behaviors by the employee. It is not too difficult to make objective judgements on both because employees are observed in countless situations by their peers, subordinates and superiors. In the classroom, students are the "subordinates" and are not capable of giving reliable performance evaluation of their teachers. In schools, teachers' peers seldom see peers in action unless the school has a team teaching program. The teachers' superiors, the principals, are seldom in the classroom, unless it is a new teacher. So it is difficult to rate teachers and give good actionable feedback. So why not put audio/video cameras in every classroom? School boards can appoint committees comprised of administrators, volunteer parents, volunteer community members, etc., to review samplings of the videos to use in conjunction with school district criteria of good behaviors, bad behaviors, etc. A lot of work? Yes. But I simply do not see how one can evaluate a teacher if one never watches the teacher teach! Another benefit of audio/video would be the clear exposure of that small number of teachers who are imcompent and should be in another career. Yes, the unions would object because they like to protect the incompetent; but I am of the opinion that the PUBLIC, as represented by the elected school board, still runs the public schools.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 11:45am
A teacher may be effective with some students and not others. I didn't realize who the good teachers were until many years later. I knew the teachers I liked, but not always the ones who benefited me in ways I didn't value then. Teachers would benefit with more collaboration between teachers in the same discipline from various schools, sharing what works. Administrators evaluating teachers is not the best choice by themselves at least. Evaluating teachers based on one high stakes test is another poor choice. Teacher evaluation and improvement is certainly needed, but as with students, requires multiple assessment. The problem with teacher evaluation and improvement is not that it is too complex, but that it will cost money to do it right and politicians and business leaders do not really understand education. As with student assessment and school improvement, we are being pushed into more competition (winners and losers), division, and disintegration of neighborhood schools instead of improving the whole system with collaboration and working together.
Dean Smith
Sun, 01/27/2013 - 11:05pm
Teaching can change every year due to the change in the class room assignment. Some teachers manage one cultural group well and others realize that they are not well versed in the culture of that group. Class room assignments and placement of students has to to be one of the factors taken into consideration in judging performance. I'm an advocate of team teaching and have noted many good results due to the arrangement. We also need to take into consideration the school's principal who is equally important in the success of the teacher's performance. He or she sets the pace and professional level for the school's success. There is much more to discuss but these points have not been mentioned.