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In Los Angeles, where I teach seventh-grade math, our current teacher evaluation system is undeniably broken. Initially designed to be a robust observation protocol and rubric, our system has degenerated into a 10-minute checklist. A well-intentioned but often overspent administrator comes into my room, fills out the requisite paperwork and signs on the dotted line. The actual outcomes of my students—both tangibles (test scores, GPAs, future college attendance rates) and intangibles (increased love of learning, increased desire to achieve)—are never factored in.

teacher evaluation
Kyle Hunsberger

How could a 10-minute checklist capture the progress of Maria, who began her seventh-grade year shy and unsure of herself, but finished not only achieving at high levels but with the confidence to apply to one of the city’s top magnet schools, and later travel the world with the People to People Ambassador Program?

How could it capture Daniel’s progress? Daniel didn’t achieve high test-scores by the end of the year, but he did manage to stop getting suspended, having found a class he could enjoy and a teacher he could trust.

Our teacher evaluation system may have been intended to capture such nuances of teaching and learning, but ineffective implementation has rendered it meaningless. The success of even the most well-intentioned evaluation system remains dependent upon the time, energy and full effort of both administrators and district officials to see it fully implemented.

While the instruction I provide to my students may be adequate (and perhaps sometimes even excellent), I know that I have room to improve. Unfortunately, with the current system, I’ll likely never find out how. As the nation’s second-largest city develops new evaluations, we must remember that implementation matters as much or more than the features of the new system itself.

Evaluation is a hot topic these days, and the debate around including student test-scores has been brewing for the past two years. With the recent public release of “value-added” scores for thousands of New York City’s teachers, the volume of this debate is near deafening levels, making a once-wonky and technical discussion one that is now impossible to ignore.

Several big-city mayors, including Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, have made education reform a focus of their administrations.

As Mayor Villaraigosa recently said on a panel at American University in Washington, D.C., “Education Now—Cities at the Forefront of Reform”: “Every mayor needs to be involved in our schools because it is the economic issue of our time.” The other mayors on the panel, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, emphasized the importance of evaluating teachers—and the crucial role to be played by student testing data.

But as these city leaders push forward, educators of all types are raising important questions about how this current rhetoric translates into the day-to-day realities of teachers and, more importantly, the day-to-day realities of students like Maria and Daniel, and their families.

Mayor Villaraigosa is right: The current system needs to be challenged. Yet, as often is the case, the issue of teacher evaluation, particularly the use of student testing data, is never quite as simple as we make it sound.

I recently had the opportunity to share with Mayor Villaraigosa two major concerns regarding the inclusion of student testing data in teacher evaluations.

First, I told him that teachers worry that the metric, based on a single standardized test, may be too unreliable to separate out their individual impact from the influence of other factors, both within and beyond school. Second, I shared how many teachers fear that they or their colleagues will be pressured to “teach to the test,” narrowing the curriculum almost beyond recognition. I made it clear that both of these concerns illustrate not only the need for a thoughtfully designed evaluation system, but also the need to expend at least as much energy in ensuring that the system is implemented well.

For any evaluation system to work, a support structure must be firmly in place to implement it and use it to improve teacher performance. Without that support, teachers will find it easier to “game” or ignore the system than to utilize the system to improve their craft.

As a teacher, I need to know that my potential “value-added” metric is reliable, but I also need to know that my administrator will sit down and go over my scores with me, offering concrete suggestions on how I can improve. He might identify colleagues I could observe and from whom I could learn successful practices. He might even notice patterns and tailor professional development to his staff to better address groups of students we are not successfully reaching.

At times, however, I fear this is pure fantasy. At heart, an evaluation system is designed to help teachers get better. However, without the proper infrastructure—time and training, but mostly time—any new system, particularly one that includes testing data, will make it more likely that teachers and administrators take shortcuts rather than make use of such a system to improve.

While mayors, superintendents and other local leaders around the nation carefully consider including testing data in teacher evaluations, they need to invest just as much energy and effort into ensuring that these measures are thoughtfully implemented. The goal must be to build not a house of cards but a firm foundation for strengthening the teaching profession.

Kyle Hunsberger teaches seventh-grade math at Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School in Los Angeles. He is currently a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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  1. Thank you Kyle – for presenting a reasoned and fair assessment of a highly contentious issue. You are so right about identifying “implementation” as the critical issue – and the onus for this falls to districts and states. In the best possible world, a teacher evaluation system including both direct evidence from achievement measures, along with qualitative data like those you point out for Maria and Daniel, can be incorporated into a process. But to do so will require tremendous investments in time and training for administrators as you point out. There is no shortcut – if we want a rigorous system capable of equitably assessing the highly integrated sets of skills required to teach effectively – then we have to be equally committed to implementing them adequately as well.

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