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Pittsburgh officials revealed the first official results of a new teacher evaluation system designed to help weed out ineffective teachers Thursday. The verdict? Nearly all the teachers – 96.9 percent – are good at their jobs.
The results, praised by the local teachers union and school system alike, follow a pattern emerging around the country: new evaluation systems, which replaced supposedly lax systems that allowed failing teachers to skate by and which cost millions to develop, aren’t unearthing large numbers of bad teachers.
The new systems typically include multiple, intensive classroom observations and require some demonstration of student growth, whether on standardized tests or – for teachers in subjects without tests – by measures chosen by schools and teachers. They’re also typically much more rigorous than evaluations in the past. Previously, principals often didn’t visit the classrooms of veteran teachers before signing off on their performance. Now, under some new systems, principals may visit even veteran teachers several times a year.
Pittsburgh, using a large donation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which has been among The Hechinger Report’s many funders), was one of the pioneers in creating the new evaluations and has been held up as a model for its efforts to increase accountability for teachers. Washington, D.C. and states like Tennessee and Florida have also launched new evaluations meant to be tougher on teachers, and a lawsuit out of California, Vergara v. California, could lead to new laws governing the teaching profession in other states soon. In that lawsuit, a group of Los Angeles students argued that bad teachers denied their right to a quality education.
But so far, the new, more rigorous evaluation systems mirror their predecessors in suggesting that bad teachers are rare. As The Hechinger Report reported last summer: “In Tennessee and Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated at least effective under their new systems. Almost 94 percent of teachers in Georgia taking part in the state’s pilot program met expectations. Nearly 97 percent of Florida’s teachers were effective or highly effective. Just 0.3 percent were deemed unsatisfactory, the same as the year before the evaluations were implemented.”
In Pittsburgh this was the first year the evaluations were linked to high stakes, and just 1.6 percent – or 28 teachers – were found to be unsatisfactory. The district has been testing the system for several years, though, and many teachers who weren’t performing up to standard had already left; some resigned while others were counseled out.
The Hechinger Report detailed the district’s transition last summer after a pilot run:
Under the old system, fewer than 1 percent of teachers annually in Pittsburgh received the unsatisfactory ratings that could result in firing — similar to the numbers across the state. Over the last four years in Pittsburgh, about 150 teachers have resigned or been dismissed because of the new evaluations, the most in the history of the district and about 7 percent of the teaching force total.
… In Pennsylvania, a study commissioned by the state of four districts that are already using the new evaluations found that 96 percent of teachers received ratings of proficient or distinguished. Only 1 percent received the unsatisfactory ratings that could lead to removal—the same percentage as under the old system.
It’s unclear if the results suggest that teachers are better than many critics have claimed, if the new systems are less rigorous than expected, or if the numbers are the result of growing pains as schools adjust.
“Are the majority of the teachers satisfactory and acceptable? I think the answer yes,” said William Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado Boulder, which has been critical of test-based teacher evaluation. “Where I think it’s a waste of money is they’re trying to get a degree of precision that they cannot get with the measures they’ve got.”
Proponents of the new evaluations have told Hechinger reporters that they were never meant to identify large numbers of bad teachers. Rather, the evaluations were intended to give teachers feedback and help them improve at their jobs.
Pittsburgh School Superintendent Linda Lane told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that one of the goals of the evaluations was to “grow the practice of staff.”
“In order for kids to grow, we have to grow,” she said.