I've previously written with guarded optimism about the massive overhaul taking place in Kentucky right now relative to teacher evaluation. If all goes according to planned, next year teacher performance in Kentucky will be assessed using a variety of fairly sophisticated measures, including the traditional supervisor observation, but also peer observations, self-reflection, student feedback, and growth in student learning (among others).
The whole thing is a massive undertaking, and school administrators around the state are bracing for a 40-hour training program that must be completed prior to actually carrying out any evaluations. I really want to believe the effort will be worth it, as data from the now-infamous Widget Effect report, as well as the experience of millions of educators nationwide, verifies that teacher evaluation in the United States is, frankly, a joke. In the vast majority of schools and districts, the teacher evaluation process does nothing to really distinguish between high and low performers, or to use performance data to guide professional growth and development or leadership decision making.
To be sure, Kentucky's effort to improve teacher evaluation wasn't based entirely on a conversion to clearer thinking about how to improve teaching and learning in our schools. As an applicant for federal "Race to the Top" funds, Kentucky was mandated to carry out reforms of the teacher evaluation process. Nevertheless, I have been pleased to see the state taking the whole issue seriously. My biggest concern has been whether school leaders can be sufficiently trained - and evaluated themselves - to carry out the new system with fidelity.
Now, data from states that have already revamped their teacher evaluation systems suggests that these reforms aren't really working. The vast majority of teachers are still getting the highest performance marks, in clear contradiction to what administrators, parents, students, and the teachers themselves know to be reality.
According to a recent New York Times story, nearly half of all states have revised their teacher evaluation systems and the results are disheartening. Examples:
In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or highly effective in the most recent evaluations. In Tennessee, 98 percent of teachers were judged to be “at expectations.”
In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better.
With all due respect to the thousands of hard-working teachers in these states, it just flies in the face of reason that these astronomical percentages of teachers are satisfactory or better in their performance. As an Education Week blogger put it, "The 'Widget Effect' endures."
What's most alarming about these figures for Kentucky is that under our new education accountability model, teacher evaluation ratings will eventually be included as a component of every school's overall performance scores.
I recently attended a meeting of school district leaders who were putting hard questions about all of this to staff members of the Kentucky Department of Education. As one district administrator pointed out, we know how badly inflated teacher evaluations have been in the past. Now, principals will have more incentive than ever to rate their teachers highly, in spite of the multiple measures now included in our evaluation system. How can this possibly work?
The KDE representative acknowledged that this was a risk and that the Department would be monitoring the situation to look for signs that schools were inflating their own ratings. But the representative provided no details on how this will work, and one superintendent voiced concern that schools would be singled out for scrutiny because they might be doing exactly what the Department wants: improving teacher performance.
I suspect how this will unfold in practice is that KDE will start looking for discrepencies between student performance and teacher evaluation. If students are performing poorly but teachers are being evaluated highly, that should be a red flag. But no mechanism for identifying such a school currently exists in law or regulation, and this approach has its own inherent flaws. Many schools are high-performing in some part because of their student demographics, not their stellar teaching. In fact, such schools can mask mediocre or poor teacher performance and will have even more incentive not to jeapordize their high ranking by pointing out teacher growth needs.
So I am growing increasingly pessimistic about the chances of this reform effort to make any real difference in teacher performance. We run the risks of wasting massive amounts of time and money. And as some folks like Mike Schmoker have pointed out, you don't need a complex approach to properly evaluate teacher performance. You do, however, need effective leadership.
And if we really can't do any better at identifying differences in teacher performance - one of the most fundament variables in student achievement - then maybe all of these education reforms really are, as Richard Elmore put it, "palliative care for a dying institution."