We Have New Teacher Evaluations. Are We Rating Teachers Any Differently?

The short answer is not really.  In the past five years states have invested time and money in improving the quality of their teacher evaluation systems.  Many states were moved to do this work by Race To The Top or to qualify for federal waivers from No Child Left Behind.  The goal was to design and implement evaluations that were more effective at identifying low performing teachers (given the conclusion that high quality teachers made a difference).  Identifying low performing teachers was essential to either, provide them additional support so they could improve or to replace them.  However, Kraft and Gilmour found that our new evaluation systems are much more discriminating between "great" and "good" teachers (the top end of the evaluation scale), but do not identify more low performing teachers. 

Kraft and Gilmour interview principals in one large district in the Northeast to find out why principals tend not to rate teacher low (even when they report that they have many low performers in their building).  The reasons include:

  • Fear that the replacement might be worse.
  • Belief that a low rating might demoralize a teacher and they may no longer want to improve.
  • Amount of work (particularly time constraints) it takes to work with a teacher "In Need of Improvement".
  • Personal discomfort giving a low rating.

As the authors note, failure to give low ratings is a product of "conscious choices by evaluators as they navigate implementation challenges, competing interests, unintended consequences, and perverse incentives."  In other words, the evaluation (e.g. rubric, rating system) might be effective at identifying low performing teachers if applied dispassionately.  However, evaluations are not applied dispassionately, they are applied by leaders that are working really hard to ensure that schools meet student needs.  We might be careful not to depend to heavily on teacher evaluations as a tool to improve teaching and learning.