Over the past few years, states and school districts across the country have devoted significant resources to the design and roll-out of new teacher evaluation systems. Driven at least in part by requirements attached to Race to the Top funding, the new systems have inspired heated debate over the efficacy of factoring student achievement data into a teacher’s performance assessment. The New York Times recently shared some initial findings from states that have launched new evaluation models including Michigan, Florida and Tennessee, reporting that the vast majority of teachers- upwards of 95 percent in all three- were rated as effective or highly effective. Although the analysis of these numbers has only just begun, the Times reports that some proponents of the new evaluation models admit that the early findings are “worrisome”. And even though it is still early, we can reasonably anticipate that if the trend continues- and the findings from the new evaluation systems reveal no significant departure from more traditional methods of evaluation- we may start to have a lot more people looking at the complicated data analysis driving teacher evaluation systems linked to student achievement data and asking “what’s the point?”
It’s a good question, really, and one that probably hasn’t gotten enough thoughtful attention in the midst of the controversy surrounding them: What is the point of linking student achievement data to teacher evaluations? Should we take it for granted that a primary goal- if not the primary goal- of these efforts is to identify and eliminate bad teachers? If this is the case then these early findings should be a cause for concern, especially given the time and money being spent to collect and analyze the data. If replacing bad teachers with good ones is the magic bullet for public education reform, it will take a pretty long time at this rate.
Of course, even opponents of the new evaluation systems would probably admit that the magic bullet theory is an oversimplification. Furthermore, it’s much too early to look at these numbers and extrapolate any meaningful conclusions about the actual number of ineffective teachers or even the accuracy of the evaluations themselves. Hopefully what these findings might do is allow us to finally begin to broaden the scope of our national conversation about how the linkages between teachers and students could actually drive education reform. States and school districts implementing new evaluation systems have tried with varying degrees of success to communicate the message that linking student achievement data to teacher practice isn’t just about punitive measures- it also has important implications for improving professional development and teacher preparation programs by identifying shared practice linked to positive student achievement and replicating those practices in classrooms across the country. But that message is often overshadowed by the anxiety surrounding the punitive side of evaluation and underscored by public struggles with local teacher unions. If nothing else, these early findings might create an opening in the current debate for a more thoughtful discussion about the broader possibilities for linking teacher practice to student growth.