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Michigan looks to soften teacher evaluations. Will it help or hurt students?

committee meeting
The Senate Education Committee heard testimony this week on bills that would remove student performance on tests as a factor in how teachers are evaluated. (Bridge photo by Isabel Lohman)
  • Michigan Democrats want to pass union-backed bills that would remove student performance as a factor in teacher evaluations 
  • Advocates cite a decade of student struggles to make the case that high-stakes evaluations don’t work 
  • But critics say now is not the time to lower accountability

LANSING—Democratic-sponsored legislation may soon loosen standards in Michigan’s teacher evaluation system in ways that supporters say will help teachers and administrators. It remains less clear if the changes will help improve student achievement.

Back in 2011, Michigan began focusing on higher-stakes metrics to gauge  teacher performance. Across the country, states vied for competitive federal funding under the Obama administration by using student test scores as one component of teacher evaluations.


But after Democrats took control of the Legislature last November, they made clear their intent to remove student test scores as a factor in evaluations, a move supported by the state’s teachers’ unions. After several months of negotiations, Michigan lawmakers held a hearing this week to discuss several changes to the system.


Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, and Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet, D-Bay City, are proposing Senate Bills 395 and 396, which would eliminate student growth and assessment data from teacher evaluations. Currently, that data — which attempts to quantify how students are performing against their expected growth — makes up 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. 

Polehanki said that process is flawed because “different cohorts of students have different variables that are sometimes out of a teachers’ control, like COVID.”  She also said current benchmark tests were not intended to be used to evaluate teachers in the first place and students have varying incentives on whether to perform well on tests.

Polehanki said she has seen “no signs that I'm aware of that using growth in evaluations has made a difference in outcomes for students in Michigan since its inception.” 

The pending bills would also reduce the frequency of evaluations required each year for highly-ranked teachers and add a new system for how teachers could challenge evaluations they deem unfair. 

Committee members have not yet set a date to vote on the bills. The bills would need to pass the Senate and the House before they would go to the governor’s desk. 

In the school year before the pandemic hit, when student growth data made up 25 percent of teacher evaluations, 99 percent of teachers were ranked either effective or highly effective on their evaluations. That raised questions about whether the process was a serious effort to identify weaknesses in teachers’ classroom performance and help them improve. Over the same school year, just 45 percent of state third graders tested proficient or higher on the state standardized test, the M-STEP. 

Bob Kefgen, associate director of government relations for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, testified in support of the bills. He told Bridge the proposed changes will help teachers “grow their practice,” which is the “best thing we can do to impact student achievement from a school lens.” 

Kefgen said other factors also affect student scores including a student’s socioeconomic status. Plus, the state is battling a teacher shortage. 

“So in an environment where we have (a) massive educator shortage, an increasing number of at-risk students and so many other factors playing into student outcomes, to take a look at a student outcome measure and try to correlate those results with one change in state policy, I don't know that you can isolate it like that.” 

Lawmakers, education advocates and teacher unions say the current, higher-stakes evaluation system is not working.

“It was supposed to be the solution to improving the quality of education for Michigan classrooms,” said Sheryl Kennedy, legislative liaison for the Michigan Department of Education during a committee hearing Tuesday. “Yet, it never achieved its intended outcome. Student achievement did not rise as a function of this new system of teacher evaluation.”

Instead, Kennedy said, paperwork tied to the evaluation process “got in the way of teaching and serving children” and there became a growing perception that the system is “unfair and without recourse.” 

Ryan Ridenour, a high school social studies teacher in West Bloomfield, told committee members Tuesday that the “decade-long experiment with high stakes student-based teacher evaluation has been a complete failure.”

He urged lawmakers to pass the evaluations bills. 

“Do you want more paperwork, burnout and turnover? Or do you want to eliminate burdensome regulations that haven’t achieved what they’ve promised?” he said.

Ridenour told Bridge he anticipates that giving teachers more time to focus on students rather than evaluations will lead to higher student outcomes. For example, he said, he believed that data collected by teachers on unit exams or student feedback about how supported they feel in the classroom would improve.

He said he’s unsure whether scores on the state standardized test known as the M-STEP would improve since there are many other factors that play a role in student test scores.

“I would say that if you look at non-standardized test scores’ student outcomes, I would definitely project that those would improve with this bill,” he told Bridge. 

Norway-Vulcan Area Schools Superintendent Lou Steigerwald told Bridge that neither the current evaluation system nor the proposed changes in the new bills are likely to improve student outcomes. Instead, he said, hiring good quality teachers and continually training them is what moves the needle for students. 

If Michigan were to remove student growth data from the evaluation process, it would join several other states that have done so. A National Council on Teacher Quality analysis found there were 43 states which required objective measures of student growth as part of the evaluation process in 2015. By 2019, that number was 34. 

“We’re making a bunch of tiny little changes to a system that we know doesn't work,” said Mike Latvis, senior executive director of legislative affairs of Wayne RESA, the Wayne County intermediate school district. “What we should be doing is taking the time to take a look at what actually would work that would support our teachers, as well as focus on student outcomes.”


Kennedy of MDE praised several of the proposed changes and said M-STEP scores should be removed from the evaluations. But Kennedy said MDE believes “strongly” some portion of evaluations should be determined by “student growth or (a) student learning objective measure” determined locally. 

Others noted how badly Michigan is struggling compared with other states and said now is not the time to lower standards. 

“Our schools consistently rank at the bottom of performance in reading, math, and almost any marker we measure related to student performance,” Sen. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, said in a statement. “This is not an indictment of our hardworking teachers, but neither is this a time to loosen standards related to performance. 

“While I am open to exploring ideas like using tests other than M-Step to measure teacher success, the bills that have been introduced will only weaken accountability at a time we need to drive better results from schools.”

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