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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

Teacher Evaluation Reform: Focus, Feedback, and Fear

What benefits and pitfalls do teachers perceive when states mandate more rigorous teacher evaluation?

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As anyone involved with U.S. public schools knows, teacher evaluation has swept the country in the past six years. Through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, the federal government has pushed, prodded, and cajoled districts and schools to overhaul the way they assess teachers. Since 2009, 46 states have reformed their teacher evaluation systems, incorporating such elements as student performance measures, standards-based classroom observations, and even parent and student feedback (Steinberg & Donaldson, 2015).
What do we know about how teachers are experiencing these changes? What has this bold—but fiscally and politically expensive—experiment with more rigorous teacher evaluation brought us?

What Teachers Say about Teacher Evaluation Reforms

My colleagues and I have studied teacher evaluation reform over the past eight years. Among other things, we've conducted annual interviews and surveys with teachers, principals, and central office leaders in New Haven, Connecticut since 2010. In 2012–2013, we conducted a study in 14 districts in Connecticut that included surveys of more than 500 teachers and interviews with a stratified random sample of about 400 educators.
Under Connecticut's Core Requirements, passed in 2012, districts in the state are required to assess teachers using multiple measures: their performance on multiple formal and informal observations per year; parent or peer feedback; whole-school measures of student learning or student feedback; and the degree to which they attain their Student Learning Objectives (goals based on student performance, which are jointly set by teachers and their evaluators). Here's what educators told us about the effects of these reforms.

Teachers Favor the General Contours of Evaluation Reform

Across the research projects we've conducted, many teachers recognize the failings of traditional teacher evaluation. They express a desire for improved evaluation systems that hold high standards for teaching and that provide more and better feedback on their instruction. They also want to have a hand in shaping these new models (Donaldson & Papay, 2015). As one New Haven teacher said, "We have to have some accountability. It's better for us to be in charge of our own evaluation rather than letting the state do it."
In particular, teachers favored the inclusion of multiple measures of teacher performance. For instance, one teacher said she liked the fact that the new evaluation system gathered data "throughout the year. And then, it follows up with data the next year. So, it's more of the whole picture of who the teacher is rather than a small snapshot."
Teachers also noted that the new evaluation system was, in one teacher's words, "much more comprehensive" and "more thorough" than previous systems. Some teachers also felt the new system raised the bar for teaching, while maintaining fairness. A New Haven teacher explained that under the new evaluation model, "an administrator can get rid of a teacher who is not doing their job …. It opens up that door but with checks and balances so that it's not a personality thing where an administrator just doesn't like someone."
Despite their appreciation for the general contours of teacher evaluation reform, teachers sometimes took issue with aspects of their school's new evaluation system. For example, many individuals reported that they had received little guidance on crafting Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), and they feared that this lack of guidance would lead teachers who set more modest goals to unfairly earn higher ratings than teachers who set more ambitious targets. One teacher in a focus group described how her experience differed from that of her colleagues: "We had different supervisors and so we got different messages, and I think we got different feedback and different structures around how to construct our SLOs." This teacher heard the message, "make it generic, make it easy to obtain." In contrast, her colleague stated that she heard, "aim high."
With districts and states under pressure to remove ineffective instructors, other teachers worried that principals would capitalize on public sentiment and modified tenure laws to use the new system to pursue the dismissal of teachers they didn't like. And others simply felt that the increased paperwork required under the new system would result in few real improvements in instruction.

Reforms Have Changed Teachers' Practice

The requirement to include student performance data in evaluation appears to have spurred changes in teachers' practice. In our 14-district study, nearly three-quarters of teachers (74 percent) reported spending more time on goal-setting than in previous years, and 53 percent of those who spent more time on goal-setting noted that this activity was valuable. In addition, 64 percent of teachers said they spent more time analyzing student data, and 68 percent of that group found this time valuable.
In interviews, teachers consistently report that the inclusion of student performance data in their evaluations increases their focus on these measures (Donaldson, 2013). All the districts in which we've conducted research have emphasized teachers' analysis of data for years, offering professional development on data analysis and holding meetings where teachers shared and analyzed data together.
Teachers reported that the inclusion of student achievement goals in new evaluation systems increased their consideration of student achievement in their day-to-day teaching. For example, one teacher said her district's new evaluation system "has made all of us look at data more … so you're making sure that you're reaching that [evaluation] goal." Another teacher described how the new evaluation system prompted her to consider the link between her instruction and student performance, saying that the system "forced me to look at my own teaching" and "slow down and think about what's important."
Although the fact that new evaluation systems increase teachers' focus on student achievement seems positive on the surface, it also raises concerns. Key questions include,
  • Although teachers are spending more time setting goals, are the new evaluation systems helping them target the most essential content for students to learn? Or are their goals addressing content that's less important and diverting instruction away from the concepts students most need to learn?
  • Does the inclusion of student performance data in their evaluations lead teachers to spend more time with certain students at the expense of others? Much has been written about standardized tests and teachers' focus on the so-called "bubble kids." Do new teacher evaluation systems exacerbate this tendency?
  • Does teachers' increased focus on student assessment scores lead them to slow down instruction so much that students' overall learning is impeded?

Teachers Value Feedback, But They Want More

Although much has been made about including student test scores in teachers' evaluations, by far the most common and most heavily weighted component of the new evaluation systems is that oldie but goody—classroom observation (Steinberg & Donaldson, 2015). Teachers consistently reported that they valued the observations and feedback they received through the new evaluation system.
Teachers' comments also suggested that one of the most potentially beneficial aspects of the system is the opportunity for more evidence-based conversations between leaders and teachers about teachers' practice. One teacher spoke for many in saying, "the best thing out of the whole process was being able to sit down numerous times with my evaluator and say, 'Tell me what you saw. I want to know.' " Of those teachers who reported spending more time in post-observation conferences, 69 percent found this experience valuable.
However, as with the finding regarding teachers' increased focus on student performance, there is a cautionary note. In interviews, principals admitted that they struggled to find the time to meet the new system's requirements for expanded classroom observations. Only 50 percent of teachers reported that they were observed more than in previous years, and only 37 percent said they had spent more time in post-observation conferences. Across the 14 districts, 7 percent of teachers reported they received no feedback from their evaluator, and 21 percent reported receiving feedback only once. Some teachers told us that they received hurried, late, or mediocre feedback. In schools with fewer resources and more pressing student needs, teachers were more likely to report that their feedback from evaluators occurred by e-mail and lacked substance (Donaldson, Woulfin, LeChasseur, & Cobb, forthcoming).

New Evaluation Requirements Can Cause Fear

Many teachers reported that new systems—especially the use of student test scores for evaluation—caused them tension, stress, and anxiety, at least initially (Donaldson, Anagnostopoulos, & Yang, 2015). For example, one teacher said, "Now, when I administer the test, as opposed to just looking at the data and saying 'Oh, this kid dropped; why did he drop?' there's that immediate thought, 'Oh no, this kid dropped; how is that going to affect my TEVAL score?' " She added, "There's a lot more pressure, and it feels like the stakes are much higher because how students do now directly influences what your rating will be."
Stress also arose when teachers observed some of their colleagues being dismissed because of poor performance ratings. One teacher said, "When you see some of the teachers who were dismissed, you look to yourself and think, 'OK, well I don't do this some days,' and you try to evaluate yourself based on that. It's just human nature to be worried about that."
Stress and anxiety seemed to arise mostly from the inclusion of student performance data in teachers' evaluations and the higher stakes for teachers' evaluations. In our 14-district study, only 29 percent of teachers felt they would get appropriate support if they received a low rating; they were worried about being penalized for a rating without receiving adequate help to improve it. Teachers also worried that expectations might be too high; 60 percent of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that some "excellent" teachers would receive ratings lower than they should under the new system.
In some situations, a certain level of stress may not affect performance—or could actually improve it (Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013). But if stress is more pronounced, it can suppress teachers' job commitment and performance (Collie, Shapka, & Perry, 2012; Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011). We did not collect data on the magnitude of teachers' stress or anxiety, but school and district leaders would be wise to attend to this careful balance between setting high expectations for teachers' performance and ensuring that teachers are not immobilized by anxiety, thereby reducing their enjoyment of teaching, their capacity to learn through evaluation, and their ultimate success in the classroom.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Across our studies, we found cause for cautious optimism regarding the implementation of new teacher evaluations in U.S. schools. Overall, teachers favored the aims of current reforms and welcomed the increased feedback that new systems have produced. However, they articulated real fear and anxiety in the early years of evaluation reform. This remains a factor that district and school leaders should consider as they strive to improve teacher evaluation.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act devolves much of the authority for teacher evaluation to the local level. The danger is that, in an effort to manage teachers' and quite possibly principals' stress or to mitigate the sheer exhaustion brought about by implementing new evaluation systems and the Common Core, states and districts will revert to largely perfunctory, ineffectual methods for evaluating teachers. Equally dangerous, but probably less likely, is the possibility that state and district leaders will fail to learn from the early years of implementation of new systems. The most promising path for the years to come, as I see it, is to recognize teacher evaluation's potential to improve teaching and learning and also to maintain the commitment to learning from past missteps to enhance teacher evaluation.
The key to getting the most out of teacher evaluation is figuring out how to implement it in a way that challenges, supports, and motivates teachers. This is a tall order. It requires robust evaluation instruments, skilled and conscientious district and school leaders, and teachers who are willing to take risks, self-evaluate, and learn. It also requires endurance.
Schools and districts have come far in implementing new systems. Now it's time to see whether educators will commit to them long enough to reap the benefits.
References

Collie, R. J., Shapka, J. D., & Perry, N. E. (2012). School climate and social-emotional learning: Teacher stress, job satisfaction and teaching efficacy. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4): 1189–1204.

Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716–733.

Donaldson, M. L. (2013). How do teachers respond to being evaluated based on their students' achievement? Evidence from New Haven, CT. Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, California.

Donaldson, M., Anagnostopoulos, D., & Yang, M. (2015). How do teachers respond to teacher evaluation? The role of emotions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Education Finance and Policy, Washington DC, February 2015.

Donaldson, M., & Papay, J. (2014). Teacher evaluation for accountability and development. In H. F. Ladd and M. Goertz (Eds.), Handbook of research in education finance and policy. Taylor and Francis E-books.

Donaldson, M., & Papay, J. (2015). An idea whose time had come: Negotiating teacher evaluation reform in New Haven, CT. American Journal of Education, 122(1), 39–70.

Donaldson, M., Woulfin, S., LeChasseur, K., & Cobb, C. (forthcoming). Teachers' learning in the context of teacher evaluation. Equity and Excellence in Education.

Skaalvik, E. M., & Skaalvik, S. (2011). Teacher job satisfaction and motivation to leave the teaching profession: Relations with school context, feeling of belonging, and emotional exhaustion. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(4):1029–1038.

Steinberg, M., & Donaldson, M. (2015, December). The new educational accountability: Understanding the landscape of teacher evaluation in the post-NCLB era. Education Finance and Policy. Retrieved from http://cepa.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/399/2014/02/The-New-Educational-Accountability_policy-brief_8-19-14.pdf

End Notes

1 For a fuller discussion of the results of this 14-district survey, see Donaldson, M., Cobb, C., LeChasseur, K., Gabriel, R., Gonzales, R. Woulfin, S. &] Makuch, A. (2014). An evaluation of the pilot implementation of Connecticut's system for educator evaluation and development. Storrs, CT: Center for Education Policy Analysis. Available at www.connecticutseed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Neag_Final_SEED_Report_1-1-2014.pdf

Morgaen L. Donaldson has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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