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The Missing Link in Teacher Evaluation

New forms of teacher evaluation are taking root throughout the country, but a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) unintentionally reveals the initiatives' serious limitations.

The SREB is a prestigious, nonpartisan compact of 16 states, stretching from Texas to Delaware. Led by governors, legislators, and state education officials, the SREB plays a major role in setting regional educational goals and assisting and monitoring states' efforts to achieve them. 

Towards Better Teaching is the first in a series of SREB publications that will track how the organization's member states "prepare, place, develop, evaluate and retain effective teachers and principals."  It reports that since 2010, 14 SREB states have sought to strengthen teacher evaluation through either legislation, Race to the Top competition, or the No Child Left Behind waiver process. Most of the report compares and contrasts the teacher evaluation policies of individual states, focusing on the development of evaluation policies and the components of implementation.

However, the report devotes little attention to the use of evaluation results. It acknowledges that a primary purpose of evaluation "is to ensure that every teacher receives regular, meaningful feedback on his or her performance, which can then inform professional development." (Note the use of the word "can," rather than "should.") But like some other organizations' reports on teacher evaluation, Towards Better Teaching treats evaluation policy and process as primary, and the use of evaluation results as separate and secondary.

Rather than an oversight, SREB's perspective probably reflects the policies and practices that are the subject of the report. SREB is too polite to point out that many teacher evaluation mandates are in response to public school critics who demand that states identify and remove ineffective teachers. The result is policies and practices that exist only to assess teacher performance. In most cases, teacher evaluation is not part of an intentional, coordinated, and comprehensive system to ensure teachers' continuous improvement. While evaluation systems may link to teachers' compensation or employment status, few drive new learning specifically tailored to address teachers' performance gaps or improve their instruction.

The SREB report is hopeful that with experience and refinements, new teacher evaluation systems will have a positive impact. It envisions evaluations that will produce "nuanced, constructive feedback that can guide further development of teachers' skills, strengthen the teaching profession and ultimately improve student achievement."

However, this outcome is unlikely unless states conceptualize teacher evaluation differently. It must be more than a process of data collection, analysis, and judgment about teacher performance. Equally important is the next step: a seamless process that transitions teachers from objects of evaluation to engaged learners who master and successfully apply the new knowledge and pedagogy they need to be more effective.

To make this leap, states and school systems will have to become much more thoughtful about engaging teachers in high-yield learning experiences. Merely identifying a teacher's weaknesses and sending her to a workshop will not suffice. Improved performance in any profession requires appropriate and sustained learning over time, coupled with heavy doses of professional support, practice, reflection, critical feedback, and correction. This equation for higher levels of performance is no secret, but most states and school systems fall short in putting it into practice.

Towards Better Teaching is an excellent overview of teacher evaluation's skeleton, but it is the flesh and soul of implementation that will determine whether teachers, schools, and students truly benefit from these evaluation systems. Perhaps a future SREB report will focus on how, and how successfully, education systems use evaluation results to engage teachers in the new learning necessary to improve their performance.

Hayes Mizell
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Learning Forward 

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