Study: Once-a-Year Teacher Evaluations Not Enough to Improve

Annual evaluations aren't enough to help teachers improve — and the infrequent classroom observations are inadequate — says a new study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

For many school districts across the country, the most common teacher-evaluation method uses a single classroom observation once every few years. The report claims that these scant evaluations have only a 33 percent chance of resulting in an accurate assessment of a teacher.

Tom Kane, deputy director of the Seattle-based foundation's education program and leader of the research project, says:

"This confirms what many teachers have been saying for years: That when high-stakes decisions are being made, school districts should allow for more than one observation."

Vicki Phillips, director of the foundation's education program agrees, saying that teachers aren't getting enough feedback and are being "left alone" to figure out what they need to do to improve.

The report claims:

  • High-quality classroom observations need clear, specific standards, well-trained evaluators and multiple observations per teacher
  • Classroom evaluations should contain student feedback and data on improvement in student test scores
  • The different evaluation methods aren't perfect and still need work, but they're better than what most districts are using now

Memphis Public Schools used to evaluate its teachers this way, but with support from the Gates Foundation and after teachers and administrators set new districtwide standards, the district now uses a system of four to six classroom visits by both principal and peer evaluators.

Kane believes schoolteachers could learn to appreciate student feedback in the same way college professors do.

"One thing I've learned is once you show people the questions, much of the hesitance fades away," he said.

The report concludes that the best way to evaluate teachers is to use data-based methods that rely on students' standardized test scores along with an updated teacher observation system, writes Howard Blume at the Los Angeles Times.

"The study by the Harvard and Columbia economists found that students enjoyed tangible long-term benefits from teachers who consistently recorded high value-added ratings," writes Blume.

The report hits home with the importance of good evaluations – replacing a poorly rated teacher could raise a single classroom's lifetime earnings by about $266,000, the economists estimated.

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