Do New Teacher Evaluations Have Their Own ‘Grade Inflation?’

In Garrison Keillor's fictional town of Lake Wobegon, all of the children were famously above average. As states begin reporting their progress with new teacher evaluation methods, the same problem is emerging, reports Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week. Uncertain of methods and fearful of being too negative, principals nationwide are rewarding their faculty with unrealistically high ratings.

Dozens of states have taken steps in recent years to overhaul their teacher-evaluation systems, often in response to federal incentives. Such changes have also been promoted by an influential lineup of organizations that calls for greater accountability in the teaching profession. The states hope to use the systems to strengthen teaching practices and dismiss poorly performing teachers.

Most states are in the process of setting up evaluation systems in which student test scores and other measures combine to produce an annual performance rating. Some states have a year of data behind them, while others are still negotiating with unions and considering options. Teachers' unions are often insisting that a large part of each rating must be based on the principal's observation of classroom teaching. While many principals have been teachers in the past, they are still unsure how to distinguish poor teaching, better teaching, and the best teaching.

The result is an obviously unrealistic, unhelpful set of scores in which above 95% of teachers get ratings of "effective or better." Florida is one of the states with a little more data on record, and its scores illustrate the problem:

In Florida, where every district was required to implement a new teacher-evaluation system in 2011-12, data released in December show that 97 percent of teachers received one of the top ratings. That figure, while high, is still lower than the 99.9 percent from before the revisions, state officials noted.

Principals aren't sure what the best teaching actually looks like, and they are generally biased by having a role in shaping school policy. Teachers and principal are both part of a school's culture, so principals tend to view what they see in the classroom with favor. A Harvard/Gates Foundation study called Measures of Effective Teaching suggested that classroom observations should always be carried out by more than one observer and at more than one time.

At this point, no states are equipped to create teams, and principals are not sure what they can do for now. Some administrators tried hard not to automatically rate all teachers as excellent. In Florida, Lee County tried to be harder on its teachers, rating only 10% with its top score. Although Florida's statewide rate of awarding the lowest rating was only .2%, Lee County managed to score 1.5% of its teachers as ineffective.

Teachers' unions ask why the scores can't be accepted as they are.

"Despite all the rhetoric blaming teachers for all the problems in education, most teachers are doing a good job, given their limited resources," said Doug Pratt, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association.

But most researchers believe that the answer lies in special training for principals. Tennessee is sending out training teams to coach principals on how to evaluate teachers better. The teams are focusing on schools that gave high teacher ratings when their student achievement scores were low. Georgia, too, is looking into how to train administrators. They are training evaluators in online sessions and focusing on reaching a consistent standard that can be applied objectively.

Some [Georgia] districts are also creating libraries of teaching videos to help refresh evaluators' memories of exemplary performance at each level. The challenges for ensuring inter-rater reliability are somewhat greater for states that have given more discretion to their districts regarding training.

Perhaps when states believe they have found the keys to matching student scores with teacher scores, they will also understand what it is that makes some teachers more effective than others. It may seem like taking the long way around, but the end result may be the desired outcome: real educational improvement.

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