Early Results from Teacher Evaluation Data Proves Puzzling

It was — and in many cases, still is — a tough fight in many states to put a standardized teacher assessment system into every school. The push for new evaluation systems was meant to look more deeply at the quality of every teacher to identify those who perform well and target those who are considered to be less than effective for improvement or dismissal.

The first set of results were awaited nervously by both supporters of the changes and its opponents, but now that data is slowly beginning to trickle out, neither side seems sure what to think.

Based on the early results, it appears either that the new evaluation systems are too lenient or that teachers are performing much better than everyone had believed. In Florida, for example, a full 97% of teachers were found to be either effective or highly effective, while in Michigan, 98% of teachers were rated effective or better.

Similar number are being seen in Tennessee, where 98% of teachers who were evaluated were found to be “at expectation” or better.

Advocates of education reform concede that such rosy numbers, after many millions of dollars developing the new systems and thousands of hours of training, are worrisome.

“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.”

The new systems, a central achievement of the reform movement, generally rate teachers on a combination of student progress, including their test scores, and observations by principals or others. The Obama administration has encouraged states to adopt the new methods through grant programs like Race to the Top.

If these preliminary results are to be believed, a large proportion of America’s teaching corps hails from Lake Woebegone, where everyone is famously above average. This poses a big problem for those who pushed for new evaluation systems on the basis that the previous ones used – which typically depended on an in-person evaluation by a superior – weren’t critical enough. If the new numbers are to be believed, the old evaluations might have been more critical than the systems designed to replace them.

In New Haven, Conn., where the teachers’ union collaborated with the school district in devising the new evaluation system, 90 percent of teachers were rated “exemplary,” “strong” or “effective,” and 2 percent received the lowest rating, “needs improvement.”

As part of the program, teachers are warned months ahead of time if they are in danger of receiving the lowest mark; some improved, and some left.

Washington, D.C., like New York a center of education reform, was among the first to try new evaluations, replacing a system under which 95 percent of teachers were meeting expectations and 0.4 percent received the lowest rating.