What does good teaching look like? We’re about to find out

Imagine a Michigan where student teachers learn at the knee of the state’s best teachers; where master teachers descend into the most needy schools like SWAT teams; where struggling teachers get the training they need to improve, and where everyone knows which teacher colleges turn out all-stars, and which producing duds.

Now imagine a Michigan where schools are paralyzed by lawsuits; where teachers are fired because of inaccurate data; and where students spend more and more time studying for a standardized test.

That’s the promise and the peril of teacher evaluation reform.

Education is the economic engine of Michigan, and nothing inside school walls has as big an impact on learning as teacher quality. Scrambling to improve teacher quality, Michigan is barreling toward a teacher evaluation system on steroids – high stakes, more time intensive, with impact far beyond the teachers being evaluated. The ripple effects could have a major impact on the colleges and universities that train teachers in the state.

The push for a system in which teachers are more realistically assigned to different rating categories has gained urgency as Michigan students have fallen to the bottom tier of states in national testing over the past decade.

Michigan school districts are already required to develop comprehensive teacher evaluations based in part on student learning. A proposed statewide evaluation system, which districts can use instead of their own, was developed at the request of the Legislature by the Michigan Council for Education Effectiveness. The group’s report was released this summer.

While details of the statewide system are still being written, it is expected to be one of the most rigorous in the nation with up to half of a teacher’s performance score based on student growth, and much of the rest based on multiple, in-depth classroom observations and discussions with school leaders.

While almost every state is experimenting with some form of teacher evaluation reform, no one is sure yet how well it will work. But almost everyone agrees it will be an improvement over the old system, where virtually all teachers were judged to be proficient or better and few received any meaningful feedback that would improve their classroom instruction.

“Some of these measures have instability and aren’t perfect,” said Sarah Lenhoff, who, as director of policy and research for Education Trust-Midwest, an advocacy group, is familiar with the Michigan legislation being crafted. “But the old evaluation systems were more imperfect.”

Riding a wave of reform

Historically, principals have performed only cursory evaluations of teachers, often once a year or less. Those evaluations typically provided little guidance to teachers about how to improve. Virtually all teachers received positive scores. The result: schools seldom identified struggling teachers, or rewarded truly high-performing educators.

In 2009, only four states required teachers to be evaluated even to a minor degree on whether their students were learning, according to a report issued last week by the National Council on Teacher Quality. And no states tied evaluations to tenure, pay or layoffs.

Just four years later, 35 states require student achievement to be a significant factor in teacher evaluations.

“This is not typical,” said NCTQ vice president Sandi Jacobs. “Big policy shifts tend to be very slow.”

NCTQ’s analysis of teacher evaluation in 50 states found:

  • 28 states require annual evaluations of all teachers
  • 41 states require some objective measure of student learning.
  • 20 states use measurements of student growth as the largest factor single factor in teacher evaluations.
  • 18 states base tenure decisions, at least in part, on how much students learn in a teacher’s classroom.

Teachers would be evaluated based on measures of a student’s academic growth either from one academic year to the next, or from fall to spring. The raw scores would likely be adjusted for various factors, such as poverty, so that teachers willing to teach in low-performing, low-income schools aren’t unfairly punished, and teachers in high-performing, affluent districts aren’t presumed to be superstars

Many states, like Michigan, are still implementing reforms. Even states with the most established evaluation reforms have only a year or two under their belts.

“It’s too early (to tell what works),” admits Jacobs.

High anxiety in the classroom

Not knowing how, and how well, reforms will work is causing anxiety among teachers, some of whom see evaluation reform as a way to get rid of teachers now protected by tenure. Firing a few bad teachers is the most common and least accurate description of the rationale behind teacher evaluation reform. In Michigan, teachers who receive the lowest rating two years in a row can be fired, but the number of teachers who would be dismissed in that fashion is tiny, says Joshua Cowen, MSU Associate Professor in the College of Education.

Cowen co-authored a study in Florida that concluded that “even very bad teachers might score above the threshold in one of two years due to random fluctuation in the estimates of their effectiveness… and many ineffective teachers will remain unidentified.”

That may not matter, Cowen told Bridge, because most ineffective teachers leave the classroom on their own accord.

Teacher evaluations that measures student growth “will remove some people,” Cowen added. “But will it remove enough teachers to improve teacher quality? No state is far enough along to answer that question yet.”

In Chicago, a teacher evaluation system based in part on student learning increased the percentage of teachers rated unsatisfactory from 0.3 percent to 3 percent, according to Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. That’s a ten-fold increase, but it’s still only 3 percent.

Far fewer than 3 percent would likely receive ineffective ratings two years in a row, if Michigan’s evaluations follow the pattern of Florida, Cowen said.

More, though, could lose their jobs through layoffs rather than dismissals, now that Michigan can target teachers with the low evaluations instead of low seniority.

“There’s a huge amount of anxiety among teachers,” said Knowles, of Chicago. “They think, ‘When it comes down to it, my evaluation depends on what students do in the 45 minutes of literacy in the math section of a standardized test.’”

That anxiety remains high, but is beginning to decline, in U.S. schools where student-growth teacher evaluations have already been conducted.

Teachers in Chicago went on strike two years ago in protest of teacher evaluations that factor in student test scores (at a far lower percentage of their evaluations than the 25 percent applied in Michigan initially, and the 50 percent applied beginning in 2015-2016.) After one year, though, “there was overwhelming positive response from administrators and teachers,” said Sue Sporte, director of research for the Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. “Teachers felt it didn’t remove all subjectivity, but was better than the old system.”

Teachers in Tennessee, where beefed-up teacher evaluations that include student growth have been in place for three years, view the system more positively now than when it began. Still, half of teachers say they remain unconvinced of the value of the reform.

“The primary purpose of an evaluation cannot be to fire, punish or embarrass,” said Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, who led the 18-month effort to develop the teacher evaluation proposal now being drafted into a bill by the Legislature. The purpose, she said, is “to build a system where every student gets an excellent education every day of every year.”

Impact far beyond job reviews

If that happens, the feedback teaches receive on their job reviews will be only part of the reason. The potential ripple effects of the data collected for those reviews could also reshape how Michigan builds its next generation of teachers.

The state eventually wants to track how teachers educated at state colleges and universities perform on their evaluations. This information will help the state demonstrate which colleges are producing the best teachers, and which are producing the worst. The state could then move to shore up or shut down low-performing schools.

The data might show for instance that Eastern Michigan produces great elementary school teachers, but that its teachers in high school chemistry struggle in the classroom. EMU could then move quickly to beef up its chemistry teaching program.

The data could also benefit student teaching programs. Today, there is no system in the state to assure that student teachers are placed in the classes of the best teachers.

The data produced from these new evaluations will allow the state for the first time to spot Michigan’s true teaching superstars, and route the next generation of teachers to their classrooms (and away from classrooms where student teachers will learn the wrong lessons).

Schools where children are most in need of high-performing teachers are typically low-income, high-minority schools with high turnover and young, inexperienced teachers, a pattern that ends up widening the state’s achievement gap.

With better information on top teachers in hand, the state could recruit teams of principal and teacher superstars for schools where they can make the biggest difference.

Open that wallet

None of these evaluation reforms will work without time, persistence and money.

Principals and other school leaders will need extensive training to reliably conduct the classroom observation portion of teacher evaluations. That training is essential to make grading as consistent as possible – so that a highly-effective teacher rating means the same thing in Grand Rapids as it does in Port Huron.

“One of the key factors in the whole process is having evaluators properly trained,” said Nancy Knight, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

That training is expensive – as much as $32 million, according to the University of Michigan Prof. Brian Rowan, who is part of a team assessing the teacher evaluation pilot programs conducted in a handful of Michigan districts during the 2012-2013 school year.

The new evaluation process will be far more intensive, with the principal spending perhaps 10 hours during the school year on each teacher – visiting their classroom, writing detailed reports, and meeting with each teacher to give meaningful feedback on their instruction. In a high school with more than 20 teachers, evaluations alone could take up more than a month, making it likely – even essential – for other top administrators, and the school’s top teachers, to help with observations.

‘Everybody wins’

Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, a longtime proponent of evaluation reform, knows there’s a lot of anxiety among teachers. “More than anything, we need to do a better job to make sure that, number one, the teaching professionals in Michigan know it’s a way to elevate the craft of teaching, and not trying to be a punitive measure,” Pavlov said.

He supports the reform, but is in no rush to push it through the legislature. “I don’t think it’d be fair for the Legislature to start passing legislation that affects so many teachers until we can address all the concerns,” Pavlov said. “We need to be deliberate about it.

“If we do this right, everybody wins.”

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Tue, 11/05/2013 - 9:06am
Our kids went to public schools. They did well, in part because they all had good teachers. These schools had some stinkers, but we were able to avoid them. We were able to avoid them because the schools allowed us to request teachers and it was rare that a request wasn't granted. In other words we were able to choose which teachers taught our kids. So how did we do the teacher evaluations? We spent time at the school, volunteering for projects that put us in the building while school was in session. We also talked to parents of older kids a lot. The stinkers were obvious. They were usually yellers. Their students were often out of control or just the opposite, confined to their desks. The parents would complain about homework not being corrected correctly, no homework, or having no idea what their kids were being asked to do. I remember a teacher where the primary complaint from parents was blanket As and that their kids learned nothing that year. Bad teachers exist and they need to weeded out. But the elaborate methods described in this article go way beyond what it takes to get the job done. Parents need the option of requesting teachers. The ones with no requests are probably your worst teachers. Administrators need to do their job and fire the stinkers. I've heard complaints about union protection for the stinkers. I think a union contract actually makes the weeding process easier because the contract spells out exactly how it needs to be done.
Mon, 02/09/2015 - 12:04pm
bad teachers? mean teachers should be weeded out but struggling teachers should be helped. :-)
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 9:21am
It's great that you had the time and the skills to vet teachers for your kids. Of course, this pushes other children into the classes led by less effective teachers. It's unreasonable to expect all parents to roam the halls, volunteer during the schooldays and conduct field assessment interviews with other parents. There's nothing wrong with doing some of this--but it is an elitist and unfair expectation. Who loses under this system? High-poverty kids, children of single parents, and children in low-performing schools where this shell game falls apart. Every parent who advocates solely for his child hurts someone else's child.
Susan Betz
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 1:50pm
In response to EB- I respect the idea of parents choosing the teachers for their children. But there are good and bad reasons to choose teachers. One dubious reason: my child's friend is in that classroom. A principal who wants to please every parent has a big job. Principals have to try to balance the numbers of boys vs. girls, quick learners vs. slow learners, quirky students with compatible teachers, and parental requests. When I went to school 50 years ago I liked some teachers better than others. Here is what my father said. "You aren't going to like all your teachers. This will prepare you for life. We don't always get to choose the people we work with as adults. It is good to learn about different types of people." Of course, I was the kind of student who could learn and do well under most circumstances. I probably learned a lot in my enriched home and through voracious reading.
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 3:56pm
I agree, there are good and bad reasons for choosing a teacher and sometimes it has little to do with the competence of the teacher. My kids weren't at all alike and matching a teacher to a kid was a challenge: a teacher who was a good match for one wasn't necessarily a good match for another. But, who better to do this matching than the parent? Sometimes we didn't have a clue and based our decision on the recommendations of the principle and of the current teacher for next year's teacher. Sometimes we had no choice because only one teacher taught a particular high school class or a scheduling conflict dictated that only one teacher could be chosen. Was all this a burden on the principles? If it was, they never let on. Even though it was allowed, most parents chose not too choose their kid's teachers. My biggest objection to what's described in this article is that parents are out of the evaluation and choice loop. That's a big mistake and creates situations where the only alternatives for a parent are to either change schools or home school. We talked to parents a lot when choosing a teacher, but we also talked to teachers who knew our kids, the principle and to older kids. High school graduates who took the same courses your kid is about take are wonderful sources of information. We tend to discount what kids have to say simply because they are kids; that's often a mistake. Getting input from former students was probably the best information since they would describe what they should have known for their college courses, but didn't. In my very large high school I had the unusual privileged of not only choosing many of the classes I took but also choosing the teacher: we were able to do our own scheduling, nearly identically to how it was then done in college. I don't think I was ever unhappy with a choice when I had a choice. I knew and pretty much every kid knew who the stinkers were and I was able to avoid all of them. Particularly at the high school level, ignoring your kid's preferences and taking them out of the choice process is also a mistake.
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 6:51pm
I have begun to wonder what purpose Mr. French has when he writes, is it to help reader’s learn about an issue so they can make their own judgments or is it simply to tell us what others are promoting. Reporting on evaluation systems, readers would be well served if they were given some information about of why and what such a system can provide. An evaluation system is not about placing blame, it is about identifying success and how its achieved, it’s about a means for each person to evaluate themselves and adjust what they are doing (taking ownership), it is about each person seeing how they fit in the process and can contribute to the success, it is communications, and more. Mr. French seems to see it simply as a ‘gothca’ because he never does include any of what an evaluation system can do. These types of articles could help us all if the writer would first learn a bit about (why’s, how’s, what’s) the systems they writing about before starting their articles.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 11/06/2013 - 6:54am
The report and recommendations is 157 pages long. I doubt anybody would read it if Mr. French tried to describe it. He is projecting using the basic concept in the report, a ranking and rating system based in part on student performance on tests and the need for training in how to evaluate. He did a good job.
Wed, 11/06/2013 - 7:30am
Chuck, Are you suggesting that reporting should only be about proving a synopsis of what others have written? Then it would seem he has provided a good service. I look for sources that will help me frame the issue so I can use the available information to make choices, whether to support, to resist, or to seek more information elsewhere. This article did not help me.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 11/06/2013 - 12:36pm
The article at least got you thinking. If you wish a through analysis see sources such as crcmich.org. They and their ilk do a pretty good job. The reports are available at www.mcede.org/reports.
Wed, 11/06/2013 - 10:20pm
Chuck, Went to the Council for Educator Effectiveness webpage and to the Reports page. I tried the links for the Executove Summary, the final report, and the Powerpoint, it searched but did not open any of those documents, I will try again later. As for it getting me to think about it, not really I have already had years of applying evalaution processes and being on both sides of the process. Nothing in Mr. French's article offered anything to think about except his apparent lack of understanding of why, how, and the real benefits of the evealution process. A well developed process is provides the best value when the programs/activities/services being evaluated are routine done by the people doing them and the the programs/acticities/services directly beenfiting from the are performing the evalautions. The do this because they see value in the process and doing the evaluation directly benefits them. The process that is designed to be used only by a supervisor is poorly designed. The number of direct reports is not a problem if those reporting have the authority/accoutability for what they do, and they have the proper tools for their responsibilities. Y
John Rose
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 7:51pm
I would like to propose a different process for the evaluation process for teachers, peer supports and peer evaluations. Let's start treating the teaching profession as a profession! At least 50% of those who start their career in education leave within the first 5 years. Research shows that mentoring and peer support truly helps teachers do a better job of educating children. Let's also consider sharing what works in terms of best teaching practices as well as share information on what works with at risk students, high achievers..etc. For those teachers who are struggling, let's first assist them in becoming better educators and assess their growth. Only after offering supports and not seeing growth should we start to investigate termination. In conclusion, I would like to share this story of my niece, who is leaving the public education system and will be teaching at the University level. She is currently a math and science teacher at an alternative high school where she is doing an outstanding job (Her teaching evaluations concur with this statement). She is leaving the profession because she is unable to maintain a decent wage and doesn't see any improvements in the future. Let's get serious here. If we want to attract the "brightest and best" we best stop treating teachers as second class citizens and we better stop the practice of underfunding public education. Teacher evaluations will make little difference with improving teacher performance.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 11/06/2013 - 6:56am
I only hope the legislature, MDE and State Board will listen. On second thought, what was I thinking?
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 11/06/2013 - 7:39am
Kudos to Dr. Ball and all those that participated in preparing the report on teacher evaluation. Sadly, it represents the typical response to a task assigned by a legislature in within a bureaucratic context whose thinking and perception of the world is stuck in the 1950s. Ranking and rating, no matter how benevolent or cautionary does not work. This proposal represents a overly complex system of arbitrary reward and punishments that will serve to drive even more teaches from their chosen work. It demands that those that do the actual work be evaluated based upon testing that has been shown to be useless time and time again (Alfie Kahn has volumes of data) and periodic observations by individuals unqualified to assess anything since they have less experience in supervision, management and leadership than most part time McDonald's employees. That's the bald and unsettling truth. Come on. Drop the academic arrogance and get real. Academic prowess ain't management or supervision. There is a solution, deceptively simple that requires great personal discipline and perseverance by those alleged to be managers in an educational context. It may even require that those in power learn how to delegate. For sure it demands that the legislature stop making detailed rules and regulations and do what they are hired for - set reasonable policy to support future goals and stop trying to put out local fires. (or write job descriptions) A leader observes the behaviors and actions of those who are direct reports on a daily basis. Danielson (one of four chosen) and other pro formas are helpful but care should be exercised to prevent dogmatic instructions from overruling good judgement. Each day a principal (psuedo manager - they have no real training) reflects for fifteen minutes on the observations of those they are responsible for. Not some formal checklist or regimented cycle of observing, but the observations and interactions made on a daily basis during the normal business of being a principal. Share those observations with those being observed on an open book basis. Review those observations at least quarterly with employees. Respond immediately if the employee shares any "observations" on your "observations. The first outcome will be the realization that principals have way too many "direct" reports to do any meaningful performance assessment. Next, the principal will discover that interactions with his employees are few and far between. Then comes the realization that knowledge about the employees is nil, superficial and totally useless for assessment. That is the beginning of effective assessment practices, those focused on continual improvement and sharing knowledge. There is no amount of structured observations and scripted evaluation, that incorporates data derived from events totally beyond the control of the person being evaluated, that can substitute for the human interaction required for honest and effective performance assessment. So instead of the typical throw money at a correcting an ill defined problem using a system of reward and punishment we should let the people that do the work - teachers and students - do the work and observe what is is they do with discipline and persistence using our common sense to record what we see - on a daily basis. Teacher led student assessments supported by a common core of learning expectations (not specifications - so MDE - stop writing) and a series of periodic and rapid turnaround common assessments of understanding (SBA) based on the shared expectations will grow learning and that learning will be contagious. Following that discipline, instead of the sincere recommendations of those asked to be creative inside a bureaucratic box, will provide a working environment that is imaginative, creative, positive; an environment that lets children (and their teachers) do what it is they do best - LEARN. We are born knowing how to do that. So sad that we persist in schemes that prevent that for so many. And if you want to know if the children are learning - ask a teacher or a the child.
Dr. Richard Zeile
Thu, 11/07/2013 - 8:06am
Unfortunately, the article emphasizes that Michigan student performance has fallen to the bottom tier of states in the the last decade, and reports this as a result of poor teaching. The explanation is more straight-forward: while other states have had/raised admission age to Kindergarten to September 1, Michigan has continued to December 1 standard, meaning that our students have averaged a quarter year less in age than those of other states. This, more than the comparative quality of our teachers, accounts for this, and I am happy to report that the State Board of Education has taken steps to phase in the September 1 start date. But let's not credit the expected improvement in student performance to changes in our teacher evaluation policies unless we have other grounds for doing so.
Thu, 11/07/2013 - 9:23pm
Dr. Zeile, You seem to feel that children biorn after Sept 1 entering school are a burden to the teachers and they distort the perfromance results of the schools. Could you describe how some one born after Sept 1 and prior to Dec 1 would show the learning defiencies that would craete and added burden to the teacher? Is there something early in their schooling that would demonstrate how the birth date affects their learning, is it in their ability to learn skills? Does this age impairment show up later in life, maybe by the level of formal education they achieve?
Sun, 11/10/2013 - 12:21am
"What does good teaching look like? We’re about to find out", that is another misleading headline. There is nothing about what a good teacher looks like. It is simply a lot about teacher evaluations with nothing about the practices that a successful teacher applies to achieve success, nothing about what a successful student looks like (a description of learning success), not even anything about what a successful classroom looks like. If we don;t even known what success looks like then how can any evaluation be of value. The reality is evaluation reguire a reference to compare those being evaluated to. If the evaluators don't have successful models as a reference than what are they measuring to? Failure, for that is what we only hear about.
Mary Kovari
Tue, 11/12/2013 - 10:43am
What we want is effective evaluations as a tool to grow teacher capacity to improve student achievement over time. A teacher who has worked for two years versus someone who has worked for twenty five years will and should be different in their capacity to deliver good instruction. We will also have to identify the bar that no practicing teacher no matter how long they have taught can fall below. But what will matter most is those principals and other school leaders doing the evaluations. Their knowledge about instruction and their own capacity to organize the school to support good teaching will be critical.
Geri Pappas
Sun, 11/24/2013 - 12:13pm
Mary raises a good point about effective evaluations. An important factor that begs attention is the role of the principal and qualifications of the principal. Who evaluates the principal and his/her effectiveness? The teachers are continually under the microscope, it 's time to place principals there. The role played by the school principal is integral to student achievement. They should be instructional leaders not managers and evaluators.