New state teacher evaluation standards are no magic bullet

It took four years to build Michigan’s teacher evaluation policy.

And the real work is just beginning.

That work – which ranges from training school leaders to evaluate teachers, to creating local tests that measure how much a student learns from an individual teacher – will determine whether reforms turn around Michigan’s flailing schools, or if they’re just more state-mandated bureaucracy, according to educators who spoke to Bridge.

Signing a cutting-edge teacher evaluation system into law – which Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign Thursday – is an important step, but it’s only one step on a long road to turning around Michigan schools, cautions Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust Midwest, a Michigan-based education reform organization that advocates for tougher, more consistent evaluation standards across the state. “This is probably the second step of 10 steps,” Arellano said.

Under the new policy, which you can read in its entirety here, Michigan’s approximately 100,000 public school teachers will receive evaluations that are based partially on student academic improvement, with 25 percent of the evaluation based on student test scores this year; student scores will rise to 40 percent of the evaluation beginning in 2018-19.

Half of the student score will come from M-STEP, the standardized test given to students across the state. The rest will come from tests chosen by individual school districts.

The student growth data will eventually include student scores over a three-year period, when there are three years of scores available under the relatively new M-Step.

Teachers will also be evaluated by at least two classroom observations during the school year by principals or others trained to observe classroom performance.

A mid-year progress report for new teachers and teachers on probation, and a year-end review for all teachers that includes goals for improving student achievement.

There are four ratings: highly effective, effective, partially effective and ineffective. Teachers who are rated ineffective three years in a row will lose their jobs.

School leaders and teachers will all receive training on the new evaluation system beginning next fall, in the 2016-17 school year.

“The most important element to a child’s education inside a school building is a teacher,” said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, one of the Legislature’s biggest advocates for teacher evaluation reform. “Teachers can’t be successful without good support.”

Why it matters

Teacher evaluation reform is critical to Michigan’s children. Once a top-10 education state, Michigan has seen its education rankings plummet compared with other states. In the just-released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as the nation’s report card, Michigan students now rank 41st in fourth-grade reading, and are below the national average in math in fourth and eighth grade.

Studies show that students of all races and income levels can achieve significantly greater learning gains from having highly effective teachers in the classroom. Conversely, students taught by new or struggling teachers for multiple years are likely to lose ground to their grade-level peers, a problem that is particularly acute in low-income schools.

While studies support Zemke’s remarks on the importance of teachers, many Michigan districts had not meaningfully evaluated the effectiveness of their teachers before the legislature addressed evaluation reform in 2011. In other districts, evaluations consisted of a principal spending a few minutes in each teacher’s classrooms once a year, marking boxes on a checklist. Teachers were given little meaningful feedback or training on how to improve in the classroom.

And in too many Michigan schools, virtually all teachers were rated effective or highly effective, even as their students were underachieving. The problem with this approach was self evident: With all teachers rated highly, schools were not able to identify those teachers who were struggling and get them the training and support they needed to get better. At the same time, truly exemplary teachers were not getting the recognition and leadership opportunities they deserved.

“If you have 600 different evaluation systems (across the state), how do you ever know if you’re getting better?” said R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent for academics at Novi Community Schools. “How do you scale up training?”

In 2011, the Michigan Legislature, working with Snyder, passed teacher tenure and evaluation reforms. The evaluation bill provided only the general outlines for a new evaluation system; the details were to be worked out later.

“Later” ended up taking more than four years. A group of education experts pulled together by Snyder to fill in the details of a teacher evaluation system, led by renowned University of Michigan School of Education Dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball, turned in its recommendations to the legislature in the summer of 2013.

A bipartisan teacher evaluation bill that earned the support of groups as diverse as teacher unions and charter school organizations almost made it into law in December 2014, but was stopped by Senate Education Chair Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair. Pavlov felt the bill gave too much control to the state Department of Education, and not enough leeway to local school districts to decide for themselves how to rate teachers.

Pavlov introduced his own version in the spring of 2015 that loosened statewide standards. That bill was in turn criticized for straying too far from the rigorous standards recommended by Ball’s commission. Negotiations continued over the summer, and a compromise bill was approved by both houses of the legislature in October. Snyder is expected to sign the bill Thursday.

“This feels like progress, I’m exciting about that,” Ball, the U-M education dean, told Bridge in her first public comments on the approved legislation. “The fact that we could get such broad agreement across party lines (the Senate approved the final version 35-2) … is very gratifying.”

Michigan’s new teacher evaluation system is “sooo much better than where we were,” Ball said. “This is an area that states are all having trouble with. It’s a step forward in a state that could exercise some real leadership. There are some things there that aren’t fully what we wanted but there’s training and the idea of standardized (evaluation) tools, and there’s reduction in the (reliance on) student achievement growth (compared with the 2011 legislation, which mandated 50 percent reliance on state test scores).

“I’m happy we were able to achieve a bill that moves us forward to the challenges of implementation.”

Now, the hard part

The impact in classrooms will vary among school districts. Many districts, knowing they would be required to toughen up their teacher evaluations, have already implemented more exacting policies. Many other districts are already using one of four teacher evaluation systems recommended by the state, or variations that closely resemble those systems.

As an assistant superintendent at Farmington Public Schools in 2012, Michele Harmala helped operate a pilot teacher evaluation program. When she was hired as superintendent at Wayne-Westland Community Schools, her new district already had its own evaluation program, too.
Both districts “took the view that we could wait until the state gets this sorted out, or we could move ahead,” Harmala said. Neither district saw any downside in improving their teacher evaluation system as soon as possible. “Teachers want to be good at what they do,” Harmala said.

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, endorsed the reforms. “It represents a big step forward and a major improvement over the present haphazard process in evaluating teachers and administrators,” MEA president Steven Cook said.

Finally getting the governor’s signature on a bill provides certainty for teachers, principals and school districts. “It’s been such a political hot potato,” Harmala said. “Now we know it’s not going to change in a year and we can move forward. At a certain point, you have to start the work.”

That sentiment is echoed by Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, who along with Zemke, the House Democrat, helped shape the tougher new standards.

“Now that we have an evaluation system that sets criteria for a quality evaluation system and student growth tools, we can focus on student learning,” O’Brien said.

“M-STEP (the state’s current standardized test, which replaced the MEAP last year) is new, and we have to look at recent data to understand how we can improve individual learning and growth. I look forward to working with the Department of Education to ensure that the tests not only measure (student) proficiency but actually measure growth of students.

“We must also disseminate the information to teachers so they can understand how to help each student,” O’Brien said. “Just having a score will not improve learning outcomes nor will it allow teachers to adapt to their students.”

State education leaders still have a lot of work in front of them. “Here we are building a system to hold teachers accountable and training evaluators on how to evaluate and MDE is developing a delivery plan, and all that work has to be done simultaneously,” said Education Trust Midwest’s Arellano.

So far, the state has set aside $14 million for classroom observation training. That may be just the beginning, Arellano said.

“There’s a lot of hard work and investment that still is going to be made,” Arellano said. “There are big opportunities, if we focus.”

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claire june
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 10:12am
I am concerned about the teachers in subject such as Physical Education, and Shop. How is their evaluation going to be valid if reading, science and math improvement by their students isn't improved. They may be teaching thier subject very effectivly and not get a good evaluation because of the Core Subjects. Doesn't seem fair to me.
David Sharpe
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 10:42am
I get nervous when writers can't spell failing unless it was deliberate:} I also resent painting all schools with one brush. The problems of urban schools have been with us since before I started teaching in the fifties. I suspect the solutions are very simple to diagnose, stable families, regular attendance, and family discipline. When these are lacking we get "failing" schools in any setting.
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 1:30pm
David, student attendance was my main issue in my 23 years as a HS Mathematics teacher(1968-1991). Time was taken to call homes or send out required forms to the parents about their child's absences.....or anything else folks thought of to encourage attendance. Of course, this time was taken from working with the students who regularly showed up, a crime in my view. I would have been happy to be evaluated on the progress of those students who were "regulars." Unfortunately, most evaluations included ALL students in spite of efforts you made on attendance issues and documentation thereof. I had the pleasure of teaching with two of my former students. Some former students are Facebook friends and viewed me as a good teacher. Other former students haven't been seen to this day since the date they originally enrolled in my class and never came back again.
Bob Carstens
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 11:37am
Concomitant with any teacher evaluation should be an evaluation of the teaching setting/support system. What is the ideal class size ? What is and has been the actual class size for the subject matter being tested of the tested student ? Do the students have access to computers and computerized educational support systems to enable additional and possibly more individualized lessons and practice and self testing that enables mastery ? What is the income and education level of the parents of each tested student ? As important is: Does the student being tested have a home environment supportive of educational achievement ? What are the students personal goals, aspirations, attitude and investment in their education ? What is the per pupil funding in that school system ? What control has the teacher had over the quality of the texts, materials used and the classroom and school environment ? Do students usually come to school rested, fed and ready to learn ? What is the education and income level of the community in which the teacher is teaching ? What is and has been the past history of the support provided by the community for the education of the students living in that community? Are the students pretested at the beginning of each school year or semester ? Is there opportunity provided (time and place) for the teacher to give additional more nuanced, supportive, individualized instruction ? Has the student had to cope with any conditions that might impair their achievement level ? Republicans historically have not been willing to support the educational needs of all the students in their community. My impression is that many prefer a dumbed down, largely non-voting electorate so that oligarchy may prevail.
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 1:30pm
Mame Jackson
Mon, 11/09/2015 - 9:46am
Thanks for your thoughtful comment -- unless there is a collective will to address the important factors you cite, we are not likely to make much progress in improving education in Michigan. In implementing a new evaluation scheme that does not take these factors into consideration, we are likely to lose (or at least undermine dedication and overlook excellence) in very good teachers who are willing to work hard in communities where educational needs are the greatest and where the contextual factors nurturing student learning and educational excellence are weak.
Tue, 11/10/2015 - 8:57pm
How about special education students? If a student has a learning disability in math, is it taken into consideration? Will teachers be "marked down" if they have students with disabilities? In working in a variety of local school districts, students from more affluent communities (resources) generally have higher achievement scores than those who come form less affluent communities Is this taken into consideration in evaluating teachers. This is all about blaming teachers for many variables that go on in education and punishing those teachers who have the audacity to work in less affluent districts. Another major joke!
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 11:55am
Old wine in new bottles. A mirror image of failed management and evaluation policies from the private sector. Listened to all the testimony, read all the materials, attempted to make a contribution. Those in power are apparently too powerful to listen to anything other than their own voices and opinions. Must always be PC! With all due respect to all who participated in the multi million dollar process of creating a system doomed to failure, this is nothing more than lipstick on the pig, or worse, a scheme to further lower teacher morale, denigrate the profession and for those determined to destroy public education, be the self fulfilling prophecy that is destroying public education and prohibiting learning. True evaluation with a focus on continual improvement of a craft or process is something that must take place every day and have as its largest component collaboration between and among those subject to evaluation. Incremental continual improvement is alien to those who deliberated long and hard to prepare this proposed system of evaluation since, it appears, none have really experienced providing an evaluation, received feedback or understand that continual improvement requires daily focus and effort - every day. Not twice a year by someone trained in a proforma external to the actual process. Not through the use of scores generated from a failed standardized testing regimen. Not by telling teachers in the classroom what to teach, when to teach and how to teach and providing absolutely no opportunity for teachers or their students to participate. Common sense advises that if you have not had input to the process and work you are being evaluated for accomplishing you know you are in a no win situation. Those who do the actual work participating in the design, development and evaluation of a job is a critical element to high quality continual improvement. For over fifty years American business management studied successful (quality and profitability) enterprise around the globe and throughout that time, despite having access to everything, they missed the critical element - empowering those that actually do the work. Those trying so hard to make a positive contribution are simply unable, or unwilling, to see or hear.
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 12:15pm
Where is the parent evaluation?
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 1:38pm
Jack, choose your words carefully. "Parent" implies nurturing and carrying for children. If all you did was make a baby, you are a "progenitor." You passed on your genes. In my experience, the effects of "parenting" were obvious via the behavior and attitude of the children. Unfortunately, and to a much larger degree and number, the effects of being the child of a "progenitor" were more than obvious also. My heart went out to the children of "progenitors" because they deserved better and there was nothing I could do about the home situation........still brings tears to my eyes today. I didn't call my students the children of "parents" until I saw evidence of nurturing and caring.
Charles Richards
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 3:10pm
Mr. French says, "Once a top-10 education state, Michigan has seen its education rankings plummet compared with other states." I realize you can't include everything in one article, but it would have been of considerable interest to know over what period of time this decline occurred. What changed during that period? Funding? Teacher turnover? Average experience of the teacher corps? Did it coincide with the ability of talented, capable women to pursue careers other than teaching? I was not impressed with the comments of R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent for academics at Novi Community Schools. He said, “If you have 600 different evaluation systems (across the state), how do you ever know if you’re getting better?” That would only be a problem if you were trying to compare districts. It shouldn't be a problem if a district had been using one evaluation system for a period of years. If the system had been consistently applied, there shouldn't have been a problem in knowing if they were getting better. I'm surprised that Deborah Ball seems to approve of the reduction in the weight given to "student achievement growth." I thought that student achievement growth was our goal. Have Michigan's tests (MEAP and M-STEP) been calibrated to the NAEP? Do we have any way of knowing how we are doing over the long term? What abut the prevailing classroom ethos? Is it considered "uncool" to excel academically? Is it considered a violation of "social justice" for some students to stand out? Or are group projects considered preferable to individual achievement? Are the adults in charge of the schools?
David Santos
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 8:41pm
Boy Charles, how do you really feel? How about this- Michigan's decline started when we started to test every kid with the ACT. Maybe you should look into the mirror and ask you favorite legislature about how they are making people leave the teaching profession in droves? (And don't tell me they are not with those last few comments). Maybe the near collapse of the Big 2 in 2008 that forced people to slowly leave this state had something to do with it? There are so many answers all you have to do is ask the actual educators. RJ made a great point and knows more about education policy and processes in his pinky than you do. But you dismissed his comment, because once again, education deformers like you NEED data and you need to make everything fit into a business model to fire as many teachers as you can. As a resident and parent of Novi, people like yourself are trying to destroy the very fabric that make our students and schools unique in the world- being creative and innovators. Even the Chinese and Japanese have come to realize making students into repetitive robots does more harm than good. They are trying to make their schools like ours and people like you want to undermine it. Why? Because people like you view the agenda as greater than the cause. And BTW, that assumption is a massive assumption about being "uncool" for being smart. Obviously you haven't been to many of the better public suburban schools in our area and it shows.
RJ Webber
Wed, 11/04/2015 - 10:02am
Mr. Richards, I have been a public servant for over 23 years. As such, my professional contact information is public knowledge. If you care to have substantive conversation around your concerns, call me. Best, RJ
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 6:33pm
"Instead of keeping the annual performance review, think about the viability of creating a yearlong, effective employee evaluation program that allows managers, employees and peers to provide constructive feedback on regular basis. An effective employee evaluation program lets you invest in your employees so that you can build loyalty, drive efficiency and create opportunities for improvement."
Wed, 11/04/2015 - 6:08pm
"And in too many Michigan schools, virtually all teachers were rated effective or highly effective, even as their students were underachieving" Remind me not to choose to take a job in a struggling district. It's clear where that evaluation is headed, as of course, there must be scapegoat and teachers are it.
William C. Plumpe
Sun, 11/08/2015 - 6:36am
A step in the right direction but we must be careful to be fair and reasonable to teachers and students when evaluating teacher performance. Let's be careful not to be punitive or install another level of bureaucracy but create an evaluation process that provides honest and constructive feedback to teachers so that they can improve their work and teach students better.
Sun, 11/08/2015 - 10:10pm
Whenever somebody says "X is not a magic bullet" or "X is not a panacea," that's a signal that some strawman is about to suffer a terrible beating.
Marilyn Hoffman
Mon, 11/09/2015 - 10:44am
How do special education students with cognitive disabilities or dyslexic students fit into a teacher's evaluation? Is this the same "factory" theory that students are like raw material in factories--everyone is the same?
Mon, 11/09/2015 - 3:41pm
Teachers who are rated ineffective three years in a row will lose their jobs. ............ Assume there is a collective bargain agreement or contract. Will lose their job be termination of employment ....................... Hard to believe this will really be applied.
Wed, 11/11/2015 - 9:15pm
Low achieving, poverty stricken districts will just have a revolving door of teachers leaving in droves under this system with nothing to show in achievement. A one size fits all factory type approach to evaluation is just not going to work, there are just too many variables that have an effect on how students learn well beyond the teacher in charge.