Four ways to make teacher evaluations meaningful

Refocusing on teacher growth: A path forward under ESSA

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Ross Wiener is a Vice President and the Executive Director of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

Teacher evaluation can be a lightning rod issue that elicits strong opinions, fierce debate and high-profile media coverage.

But these conversations tend to overshadow the primary purpose of evaluation: to act as a single — albeit important — part of a robust system for supporting educators’ growth.

Now, as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) takes effect and provides states with more discretion over education policy, leaders have a prime opportunity to re-examine what’s working and what can be improved to build and strengthen teacher evaluation systems that deliver on this core purpose.

Related: The Every Student Succeeds Act includes some new ideas on how to train better teachers

It is important, however, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

At the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program, we are seeing firsthand how states and districts across the country are remaining committed to the promise of evaluation and support systems while looking critically at how to refocus and refine them.

Based on what they’ve told us about their experience, we have identified several key strategies any leader — regardless of where they are in the implementation process — can leverage to improve their teacher evaluation and support system.

Focus on growth, not punishment. Successful systems ensure that principals and evaluators are trained not only to give accurate ratings but also to provide meaningful, constructive feedback that will help teachers improve. And evaluators should differentiate their feedback and support based on teachers’ experience level and past performance. Novice teachers in Massachusetts, for example, are observed more frequently, engaged in a collaborative goal-setting process with their evaluators and sheltered from negative consequences while they learn on the job. These types of policies promote a growth mindset that supports success for students and teachers alike.

Involve teachers in meaningful ways.  Create a feedback loop for teachers to have a real say in informing and improving the evaluation system. States can use surveys, focus groups, partnerships with teacher-led groups, and task forces to seek continuous feedback on how evaluation is working. School systems can also allow teachers to collaborate with observers to determine focus areas for their evaluations. In many Colorado districts, teachers complete self-assessments and then compare those with feedback from their evaluators. This process empowers teachers to take ownership of their practice and their evaluation—rather than being passive recipients of feedback, teachers are reflective providers of input that informs their own professional development.

Danielle M. Gonzales is Assistant Director for Policy of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

Consider multiple, flexible measures. Although weighting student achievement in teacher evaluations can be a challenge—both logistically and politically—state leaders should learn from systems like the one in Kentucky, where teachers are evaluated based on a complete “body of evidence” including student achievement data as well as several other sources such as self-reflection, observations, and student surveys. States also should consider how teachers can take the lead in developing measures that feed into their own evaluations—a process that can strengthen the feedback system while also promoting teachers’ professional growth.

Demonstrate progress. We’ve seen that   high-quality systems require states and districts to work hard — and not be afraid to share about the fruits of their efforts. That’s why states should invest in and communicate about their efforts to ensure the quality of the evaluation and support system and continually improve it. They also should tell stories that go beyond performance ratings and show how the system is improving teaching and learning. For instance, Wisconsin has focused on supports rather than rankings, which has helped promote a culture of growth in all levels of the education system. It has also helped the state build a positive narrative that ties back to the core purpose of evaluation — to improve teaching and learning.

As states take on more responsibility for crafting sound education policy under ESSA, they find themselves at crossroads, with a number of possible paths ahead of them, especially when it comes to teacher evaluation and support systems.

Related: This may be the best way to train teachers, but can we afford it?

We believe the strategies and examples we outline above and in our report, “Teacher Evaluation and Support Systems: A Roadmap for Improvement,” can help states chart their path forward.

By refocusing on teacher growth and development — the driving purpose behind teacher evaluation — and taking stock of what works in their own state and in others around the country, leaders can make their systems more responsive, more trustworthy, and more impactful on teacher learning and student achievement.

Ross Wiener is a Vice President and the Executive Director of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

Danielle M. Gonzales is Assistant Director for Policy of the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

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