Society and Culture

Upgrading teacher evaluation

In a new AEI Education paper, the latest in our Teacher Quality 2.0 series, American Institutes for Research’s Mike Hansen looks into the future of teacher evaluation.

He asks us to first imagine browsing through the new product releases found in the tech pages of the latest Sunday newspaper. The drastic change from ten years prior may strike you, never mind that you’re probably reading the news ”paper” on a computer screen.

It’s a fact of life in the digital age, Hansen says, “We know what we buy today will soon be outdated.” Remember the original iPod, born way back in ancient 2001? Since then, Apple has produced six new versions of the iPod classic; today’s version holds 40x as many songs and allows you to watch up to 200 hours of video. If you’re still stuck with the 2001 version, you’re totally missing out.  The same could be said for laptop computers or smart phones.

This is all business-as-usual when it comes to consumer electronics, but Hansen notes that education policy is far less accustomed to such frequent upgrades. This is a painful reality; as Rick Hess has noted, “We’ve got a model which was built perfectly reasonably for the world of, say, 1910. It’s not a bad model. It’s just that if you actually had a car that your family had owned since 1910, you might think it needed more than a tune up.”

So, let’s play along with Hansen’s scenario. What if we thought about teacher evaluation as a technology? Products evolve; not only because current versions are imperfect, but also because consumer needs change. The same can be true of teacher evaluation: So-called “value-added” measurements, which attempt to connect student academic growth to their teachers, are all the rage today.  While an improvement over previous evaluative tools, these measurements have very real practical limitations.

What’s more, an increasing number of schools are redesigning the traditional classroom with the help of technology, which means altering familiar definitions of the teaching role (see here, here, and here). Within these new models, value-added measurements, which were created with a 30-students-per-teacher, lecture-based system in mind, are far less useful. How, for example, do you ascertain how much “value-added” a teacher provides in a world where students learn through a hybrid model of classroom instruction and online tutoring?

Hansen explains that teacher evaluation systems will have to evolve, just as other technologies do, to accommodate these shifts.

He urges his fellow researchers to act accordingly. Research on evaluation has struggled to keep pace with policy, Hansen notes, and value-added will soon reach its limits within the current system. The current teacher evaluation binge has proven a mad rush to cement imperfect metrics into longstanding statute. It would behoove researchers to better inform this legislative activity by anticipating potential challenges and future changes.

Hansen suggests four areas researchers can actively pursue:

  • Small-scale measurement – Create ways to measure a teacher’s productivity in installments shorter than an entire school year
  • Implementation –Investigate the sticky points of evaluation implementation more carefully
  • Workforce Monitoring –Work to better understand the actual productivity of the teacher workforce across time and space
  • Breaking away from research norms – Be prepared to get creative, by collaborating across fields, learning to sort through large pools of data in new ways, and reducing research publishing timelines

Referring to the newest iteration of any policy as “2.0” is nothing new in edu-wonk land. For us, it’s an exercise in shaping the next upgrade of human capital research and policymaking. We need to work out the kinks from the last round; if we don’t, we may well hinder future entrepreneurial efforts that don’t easily fit the current mold. When it comes to teacher quality, we’ve only taken the first steps in what will be a long path forward. As Hansen reminds us, it’s time to forge ahead with our eyes wide open.

2 thoughts on “Upgrading teacher evaluation

  1. I just retired after teaching 26 years. Here’s my 2-cents worth:
    The ultimate objective is to increase the student’s understanding. So, first off, you have to know what the student knows about a given subject. At the start of the year, there should be something to indicate just what the student learned previously. Too frequently with poor kids, they bounce around from school to school because their parents keep getting evicted due to inability to pay the rent, so it’s hard to get a handle on them. Anyhow, for those who actually start and finish at the same school, compare what they had learned by the end of the previous year, compare it to what they learned after a year, and take into account whether the student has a history of even bothering to try or not. Also take into account if the student is attending regularly, is actually in class instead of suspended, if they’re sick, and such.
    Still, with math, a student who misses a single week can get far behind and never catch up unless THEY make the effort to do so.

  2. re: kids who get “bounced”.

    yes… kids in poor economic circumstances have very different lives than kids in a more stable economic circumstance – even one with a broken family but the parents still work to support the child.

    Unfortunately a significant number of kids end up in chaotic circumstances and “learning” is not easy nor is “teaching”.

    this is not really a “teacher” problem unless we expect “teachers’ to be able to handle these much more difficult cases and it does much matter how many they have in their class.

    What I’d challenge the “choice” school movement to do – is to take on this challenge in places where there are significant numbers of these kids and the achievement results demonstrate the problem.

    I think we’re going to find that these kids need – not typical teachers and certainly not newbies fresh out of college – but exceptional veterans… that will not be cheap.

    but let’s let the choice schools have at this… why not?

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