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Lesson 3.9

How Do Teachers Know If They Are Succeeding?

Want to know which teachers are great? Here’s who to ask.

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Most of the time, teachers substantially work alone.

In many schools and districts, feedback on their performance is a check-box exercise: the principal or a designated evaluator shows up with a clipboard, watches for a few minutes from the back of the room, makes a few marks on a form, and leaves.

More extensive observation is almost always a reflection of trouble, and may be designed to put pressure on the teacher to improve, or to quit. Some teacher contracts limit the number of times a principal may observe a teacher, or set rules that require the principal to provide advance notice for observation. Unless the school has a strong Professional Learning Community it is normal for teachers to respond negatively to being evaluated. There is a subtle difference between evaluation of teachers and evaluation for teachers.

Most states now require teachers' evaluations to include their students' results

In 2009, the New Teacher Project criticized this perfunctory process in a widely-read report titled “The Widget Effect.” The report argues that “school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives.” Teachers unions, in turn, criticized the Widget Effect approach for placing too much reliance on the judgment of the school principal, or on over-interpretation of student test scores.

In California, districts are not required to consider student test scores when evaluating teachers.

In 2015, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a detailed report comparing teacher evaluation practices and policies across the US states. Only five states exclude evidence of student achievement from a teacher's evaluation. California is one of the five.

Most states now use student achievement data as part of teacher evaluations. California is one of the few exceptions. Most states now require student achievement data as part of teacher evaluations. California is one of the few exceptions.

In California, teacher evaluation is often seen as punitive. Extensive observation and evaluation is costly, so it is rare — and generally seen as a signal of trouble.

Students Matter, an education advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in 2015 (Doe v. Antioch et. al.) to argue that school districts are compelled under existing California law (the Stull Act) to evaluate teachers in a way that includes student achievement data. In 2016 Superior Court judge Barry Goode ruled that the Stull Act is not specific; it leaves the manner and consequences of evaluation up to school districts.

Should teachers review each other?

An alternative approach, called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) supports principals in some California districts. In this system, districts invest in more frequent observation and evaluation, and try to make it beneficial evaluation for teachers being observed. Underperforming teachers are assigned a coach and evaluated by a teacher panel. There is some evidence that this approach is effective in raising teacher performance. It also may be helpful in “coaching out” some teachers who might do better in a different line of work. If managed carefully, PAR can help provide the required documentation to support a formal dismissal when called for. Critics of PAR express concern that it can have the opposite effect, creating hurdles and obstacles to dealing with performance issues in a clear, effective way.

In California, few districts have implemented PAR or other systems of constructive evaluation for teachers in part because they cost money. When it's time to negotiate a contract, most teacher unions have preferred to advocate for education dollars to go toward salaries rather than support for evaluations, which it is easy to imagine being used punitively.

Why not ask the students?

Of course, the people in a school who are best-positioned to know a teacher's strengths and weaknesses are the ones carrying backpacks: the students. In seven states, student surveys are a required element of teacher evaluations according to the 2015 NCTQ report. Many schools and districts are experimenting with student feedback in the search for alternatives to test scores as a way to understand teacher strengths and weaknesses. The 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, uses a version of the Tripod survey (see image below) to gather student feedback. Her version of the survey also includes space for students to write their own response.

Student Survey sample from NCTQ Connect the Dots report

Teachers can "opt out" of being evaluated by students.

In 2010 the California Association of Student Councils (CASC), a statewide organization of student leaders, argued that evaluation for teachers should include feedback from students. The student organization enthusiastically advocated for legislation to facilitate student involvement in teacher evaluation and celebrated passage of SB1422, which appeared to pave the way. No funding was provided for such evaluations, however, and student participation in teacher feedback remains rare. Ironically, the amended legislation that eventually passed appears to prohibit districts from making student evaluations a required practice: instead, it guarantees each teacher an unlimited option to opt out. This is a good example of how advocacy can backfire.

Another alternative proposed but not yet tried (readers, please add a comment if you know otherwise) is for higher-grade teachers to evaluate lower-grade teachers based on the preparedness and work of the students they teach.

What should be done about "bad" teachers?

The demand for meaningful teacher evaluation systems gained urgency in the great recession. When the budget requires laying off teachers, who should be the first to go? 

The lack of effective systems of evaluation for teachers made it difficult for school leaders to argue effectively that they should be able to use judgment in who should go and who should stay. Professor Eric Hanushek, who strenuously promotes the idea of more judgment in teacher retention, argues that targeted layoffs should be a key strategy for school improvement. He says, "If you eliminate the bottom five percent of teachers in terms of effectiveness, or if you replaced five to eight percent of the worst teachers with an average teacher, U.S. achievement would rise to somewhere between Canada and Finland. A small number of teachers has a really big impact on the achievement of kids."

A 2013 PACE/Rossier survey of California voters found significant popular support for this idea: "when asked what would have the most positive impact on public schools, the top answer was "removing bad teachers from the classroom" (43 percent), followed by "more involvement from parents" (33 percent), and "more money for school districts and schools" (25 percent)." Part of what makes this idea difficult is that it implies certainty about who, exactly, falls in that list of worst teachers. Test scores are generally lowest in places where poverty is greatest, and it can be challenging to untangle effectiveness from circumstance.

"Value Added" evaluation of teachers

"Value added" analysis attempts to isolate the difference that a teacher makes in students' success, distinct from other influences. Value-added analysis statistically examines whether students are scoring as expected, given their circumstances, or differently. Over time, if a teacher's students tend to come out of their classes with more improvement in their scores than the model predicts, the teacher might be doing something worth celebrating. Of course, the reverse is also true.

The methodology for this Value Added analysis in education is steadily improving, but there is a lot to know. Harvard Professor Raj Chetty studies this topic, and his explanations are useful.

Surveys of voters, parents and teachers tend to agree that the system is failing to take action when teachers are ineffective; inaction on this issue became one of the core arguments in the 2014 case Vergara vs. California.

A Positive View of Evaluation for Teachers

How can anyone become better at their work in the absence of meaningful feedback?

Teacher evaluation should be about much more than dismissal decisions. After all, how can anyone become better at their work in the absence of meaningful feedback? Greatness By Design, a California task force report on how to support outstanding teachers, stresses that educators be evaluated against professional standards and that evaluation be informed by data from a variety of sources, including measures of educator practice and student learning and growth.

Teachers don't necessarily reject evaluation if it helps them improve. This conclusion has been echoed by large-scale surveys of teachers by the Gates Foundation, which in 2009 began the MET project, an effort to develop useful evaluation models for teachers. In the video below from TED Talks Education with John Legend, Bill Gates argues for significant investment support of teacher development.

One evaluation method that the MET research found to be particularly valid was student surveys.

Many pioneering schools and districts took inspiration from Charlotte Danielson's Professional Practice framework, which defines a rubric for evaluating and coaching teachers in order to make evaluations more consistent and focused.

Perhaps the most thoroughly developed, tested, respected (and also misused) system for teacher evaluation and improvement is Washington, D.C.'s IMPACT program. It has been in use and under development for over a decade. Partly because evaluations are connected to bonuses, the system has undergone intense scrutiny, revision and replication. If your district wants to consider an evaluation system for teachers, deeply understanding the IMPACT program is essential.

As testing has become an important component of school management and accountability, student test results have become a correspondingly important component of teacher evaluation in most states. The topic continues to be a subject of debate in California.

Updated September 2018


True or False: California requires public schools to evaluate teachers partly on the basis of their students' test scores.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jenny Greene July 7, 2020 at 7:59 am
What if evaluation of teachers led not to removing ineffective teachers from the classroom (which is a serious threat) but instead to investing in teachers by sending those who need more help to some sort of training camp (paid, of course, by the school district) to help them work on their craft?
user avatar
itgeek February 21, 2019 at 5:39 pm
Just a heads-up, the link to "write their own response" seems to be broken.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 14, 2019 at 11:24 am
Students can be very observant about the effectiveness of their teachers. Students can also admire or praise a teachers for qualities which alone are not sufficient to be good teachers (often tying into how humorous the teacher is). If the questionaire is well crafted (no minor thing), then the outlier responses can be identified and something closer to the true evaluation of the teacher as a teacher can be determined. There is always the issue of 'one man's meat' in that someone can be a perfect teacher for one child and dreadful for another resulting in two very different parental responses to that teacher's performance.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 28, 2018 at 2:15 pm
Linda Darling Hammond shares research on teacher evaluations including criteria for an Effective Teacher Evaluation System

Read the Report "
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 6:41 pm
Student scoring teachers. I have been promoting this idea for more than a decade but have found strong resistance from teachers themselves. Yet several of the best regarded teachers do this themselves- getting feedback.
Profs at the UC need student input as part of the promotion process- why not HS teachers?
user avatar
Mark MacVicar July 8, 2015 at 9:14 pm
If teachers work alone with students, then the only way to independently evaluate their success would be to independently evaluate the students before, during and after a course. In my opinion that seems unlikely to produce the desired results. Maybe changing the paradigm so that teachers don't work alone, essentially co-teaching, could help be a part of evaluation system.
user avatar
Liz Fischer June 30, 2015 at 9:53 am
At any school there will be teachers that do a better job than others. Evaluation is good and necessary but increasing collaboration would be even better. As a parent on campus, I can see the difference right away in teachers that work together as a team: they seem happier and friendlier.
In "A Practical Guide to Mentoring, Coaching, and Peer Networking: Teacher Professional Development in Schools and Colleges" by Christopher Rhodes, Michael Stokes, et. al. studies are sited that show teacher collaboration increases teacher empowerment, self-esteem and ownership of results. However, it's important to note that in order for such collaborations to work teachers need to have the personal and interpersonal skills to treat each other well so as to develop mutual trust, confidence and respect (West-Burnham and O'Sullivan,1998).
I think we don't just like good teachers, good teachers are likeable. Maybe student/parent surveys can help administrators to identify those teachers who can be the leader assets that "raise the tide" for their schools.
user avatar
Stacey W April 6, 2015 at 7:15 pm
Students and parents should be able to provide feedback to teachers. That being said, the feedback given should be done in a constructive and kind manner and not be criticizing.
We should all be on the same team - with parents and teachers working together to offer the best educational experience and learning environment for our children. In the case of a really bad teacher (we've had one), I would think that if numerous parents had concerns about a teacher, then perhaps it would deserve some research by the school district and teachers' union.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 5, 2015 at 10:11 am
I love the idea of students giving teachers feedback through surveys. As a parent, I'd also like to be able to provide feedback to the teachers of my children, but there is very limited opportunity for parents to communicate with teachers at my children's school. Most people want to do their jobs well, but without feedback growth is stunted. If early on, teachers experienced feedback and coaching, they would grow to expect it, they would improve their teaching effectiveness and most important of all would be the increased learning that our students would achieve.
user avatar
Mamabear March 19, 2015 at 11:30 pm
This is one of my favorite lessons so far! Teachers should not be measured by student test scores. Parent and student surveys are the best indicator of success and/or areas to improve. Also, reading specialists and IEP Intervention providers should be required to hold parent teacher conferences to demonstrate their effectiveness.
user avatar
Paul Muench November 8, 2014 at 12:20 pm
I'd like to suggest the question metric. A teacher should evaluate his effectiveness by the questions his students ask. Are all students asking questions? Are students asking interesting questions? Are students asking questions about related topics? There are more questions a teacher could ask, but I think that demonstrates the idea. Teachers should be counseled from early in their training about this self evaluation metric. They should also be counseled that they should resign if they cannot reach this level of mastery in the art of teaching. Our school adminstrators should discuss this metric with teachers regularly. Teachers and administrators should talk about the importance of this metric in their school communities. Parents and students should feel welcome to give teachers feedback on how they see the teacher progressing on this metric. In some senses this is a free approach. It's not free in that it takes time and committment, but it sure seems we could do this without raising taxes explicitly for this purpose. I understand this doesn't address students that have somehow become paralyzed by the stress in their communities. But lets be careful that we don't short change student resilience.
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