Teacher evaluations questioned despite lack of state guidance

The 2011-2012 marked the first year all schools used the four-tier evaluation system mandated by the Michigan legislature, rating teachers as “highly effective”, “effective”, “minimally effective” and “ineffective” according to an article in the Detroit Free Press. The article cites that 99.4% of teachers were rated in the top two categories, but the non-profit Education Trust-Midwest is not convinced that 99.4% of teachers know what they are doing. The article goes on to say that “the numbers raise concerns that struggling teachers are bot being identified or given training and support they need to improve.”  30 districts were asked for statistics, but only 10 provided them.

Sarah Lenhoff, assistant director of policy and research at the Education Trust-Midwest was quoted in the article saying, “We would expect more variation in how teachers are being evaluated, because we know that behind evaluation is a series of steps that help teachers get better and improve student achievement.” The article goes on to state that legislation requiring the evaluations wasn’t approved until last summer, but required school  districts to evaluate teachers right away, and an actual definition of the terms school districts are required to use won’t be developed until after an ongoing pilot study of the evaluation systems.

In other words, Education Trust-Midwest is criticizing school districts for implementing a state-mandated rubric for a teacher evaluation system using undefined terms that the state refuses to define until they complete studying the evaluation system.


Demanding that school districts evaluate teachers based on a generalized rubric and  undefined terms and then criticizing them for generating a relatively uniform product is a little like criticizing someone for putting the pieces of a bookshelf together in the wrong order based on an exploded diagram that didn’t come with written instructions defining the order the pieces should go together.

How can the state demand teacher evaluations without clearly defining what differentiates a “highly effective” teacher, an “effective teacher”, a “minimally effective” teacher, or an “ineffective teacher”? Why are the evaluations that school districts created based on a loose set of instructions coming under fire for being relatively uniform? Or could it be that Education-Trust Midwest does not believe that 99.4% of teachers are good at their jobs?

After all, it is the belief of Lansing politicians that special education students and alternative education students learn at the same rate and in the same manner as an honors student. If they believe that all students learn at the same rate and should be able to pass the state tests regardless of their personal situations, then by extension they believe that all teachers teach the same way and therefore should be evaluated in the same way.

Therefore, it seems that school districts have given the state precisely what they want: A uniform evaluation system that is applied to all teachers and evaluates them according to the Legislature’s mandated terms. If the state wanted a more varied method of evaluating teachers, they would have written definitions into the law when they passed it instead of choosing to put it off until they conduct a pilot study of the evaluations. Why is it so hard to believe that 99.4% of teachers are considered to be “highly effective” or “effective”?

Teachers falling between the cracks?

“Our findings show that districts keep treating teachers as if they are interchangeable, like parts on an assembly line. This is a disservice to thousands of teachers across the state, who take pride in their work and are eager to get the intensive feedback, training and support they need to improve.  By treating all teachers as if they are the same we are neglecting to recognize high-performing teachers and empower them to be school leaders and mentors; we are missing out on richer data and more actionable feedback to the vast majority of effective teachers to help them improve, and we are not identifying struggling teachers who need extra support and interventions,” Education Trust-Midwest posted on their website.

Aha, the crux of the problem!

Struggling teachers are falling between the cracks in this uniform system because all teachers do NOT teach the same, much like all students do NOT learn at the same rate. More variation of teacher evaluation may discover a larger percentage of teachers who need help, according to Education Trust-Midwest’s argument above.

However, providing struggling teachers the support they need may prove to be more of a challenge than creating a varied evaluation system that better identifies struggling teachers. If you want to use high-performing teachers to mentor struggling teachers, the highly effective teacher would need to teach fewer hours, and use the remaining time to observe the struggling teacher and provide feedback on what could be done differently. Of course, the highly effective teacher would be available to students less as a result and continue to draw their full salary.

Lansing seems unwilling at this point to actually allocate more funding to schools so they can hire teachers or at least long-term subs to stand in for “highly effective teachers” who would be taken out of their classrooms to work with less effective teachers. Until they are willing to provide this funding, struggling teachers will continue to struggle.

Another problem lies in the evaluation system itself. Often, school administrators are required to perform teacher evaluations in addition to their normal administrative duties. Therefore, evaluations tend to be done on a few individual days and are akin to a few snapshots of the daily happenings in the classroom. If you knew your entire job performance was going to be rated based on a few days of work, wouldn’t you put on a show for your boss, too?

Education cannot be effectively evaluated based on a just a few days in the classroom. A good education is the sum total of what happens on every single day in the classroom. Until the state is willing to fund independent evaluators who can afford to spend more time in the classroom observing more of a teacher’s practice than a school administrator, evaluations will continue to be snapshots of a single day’s activities.

Education Trust-Midwest is misguided in their early assessment of the teacher evaluation system. They are basing their findings on 1/3 of the school districts they asked to respond, and are quick to criticize school districts for meeting state requirements based on the state’s lack of meaningful definitions for their own terms. It seems that they would rather the year one evaluations find greater than 0.6% of teachers were rated as “minimally effective” or “ineffective.”

They disguise this belief as concern that there are more under-performing teachers out there than the evaluations have uncovered. They call for intelligent reforms, but seem to forget that the climate in Lansing is decidedly frosty toward giving additional funding to school districts to meet the requirements the Legislature has put in place.

Education Trust-Midwest may better use their time working with politicians to develop a more comprehensive teacher evaluations system that would be more like a motion picture representing teachers’ performance rather than the scrapbook it is. If they are so concerned the system is not properly identifying struggling teachers who are subsequently not getting the help they need, they should be lobbying for independent evaluators and more funding for schools, not blasting school districts for following the state’s lack of direction in evaluating teachers.

Most of all, they should be rejoicing that 99.4% of teachers were found to be “highly effective” or “effective” in year one of the four-tiered system. They should be happy that very few teachers stink at their jobs. Desiring more teachers be rated as ineffective is not how one reforms the education system.