‘Race to the Top’s? Pricey Centralized Effort to Improve Teacher Evaluations Demonstrates Few Positive Results

Updated teacher evaluations are a key facet of the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” school reform agenda. Schools across the country have implemented new methods of teacher evaluation in order to garner some portion of the $4.35 billion in education grants attached to the program. The new evaluations rate teachers based on a combination of student academic progress, as measured by test scores and other traditional academic metrics, and observations by principals and other administrators. The observation component replaces the old criteria of “classroom management” and “planning” with 60 specific elements including “engaging students in cognitively complex tasks involving hypothesis generation” and “testing and demonstrating value and respect for low expectancy students.” Teachers deemed competent by these new standards are allowed to continue working, while teachers rated “less than effective” are subject to improvement or dismissal.

However, the results of these new evaluations have been questionable, appearing highly skewed in favor of the teachers. For example, in Florida 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or highly effective, and in Michigan and Tennessee 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better. These numbers suggest that either the vast majority of teachers are extremely qualified or the new evaluations are inaccurate barometers of teacher performance.

“It is too soon to say that we’re where we started and it’s all been for nothing,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy organization. “But there are some alarm bells going off.”

These excessively favorable ratings are likely the result, at least in part, of inconsistencies in standardized testing techniques. Because standardized tests have changed significantly in recent years, and are now undergoing even greater changes due to the new “Common Core” curriculum standards, administrators have been reluctant to uphold high test-score standards for their teachers.

“We have changed proficiency standards 21 times in the last six years,” said Jackie Pons, the schools superintendent for Leon County, Fla., in which 100 percent of the teachers were rated “highly effective” or “effective.”

Additionally, teachers’ unions have pushed to deemphasize the influence of test scores on teacher evaluations. They claim that the data is error-prone for a number of reasons. For example, in Florida some teachers did not have enough testing data for the students they taught to complete evaluations, so they were evaluated based on the scores of students in their schools that they did not necessarily instruct. In Atlanta there was widespread cheating by teachers because their pay and employment was directly tied to their evaluation ratings.

Impressions of the new program are not entirely unfavorable, however. In Washington D.C., three years after implementing the new evaluation system, the number of teachers rated effective or highly effective rose from 82 to 89 percent, a statistic Scott Thompson, the deputy chief of human capital for teacher effectiveness for D.C. public schools, interprets as an indication that the new evaluations are positively affecting teacher performance. Thompson also noted that 400 teachers have been fired as a result of the new evaluation system, and hundreds more have relinquished their jobs voluntarily after receiving low ratings.

The new evaluation system appears to be a mixed bag in terms of effectiveness– comically inaccurate in some school districts, but seemingly beneficial in others.