(Guest Post by James Shuls)
There may not be an actual town of Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” There is, however, a profession that comes very close – A profession where everyone is effective, meets expectations, and is an all-around great person. It is the teaching profession.
In 2009, The New Teacher Project brought attention to the Lake Wobegon effect in education. Their report analyzed teacher evaluation practices in 12 districts in four states and found that almost universally teachers received good marks. In districts that use a broad scale to rate teachers, 94% received one of the top two ratings. In districts that used a binary scale, 99% were rated as satisfactory. They concluded, “A teacher’s effectiveness – the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement—is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way.”
This practice of marking all teachers above average is not isolated to a few districts. Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk noted:
The figures are resoundingly similar. In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better.
Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be “at expectations” or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program
More recently, Sawchuk reported the results of Indiana’s new teacher evaluation system. He wrote:
…similar to other states, the results are almost entirely rosy.
The Associated Press reported that 88 percent of teachers and administrators were rated as either effective or highly effective under the system; only about 2 percent need improvement, and less than a half a percent were deemed ineffective. About 10 percent of teachers weren’t rated because their collective-bargaining agreements hadn’t been updated yet.
Now, I love teachers as much as the next guy (I used to be one and I married one), but these reports are troubling. We know, from personal experience and from objective data, that not all teachers are wonderful and effective.
A number of studies have documented the tremendous variation in teacher quality. Economist Eric Hanushek writes:
…the magnitude of variation in the quality of teachers, even within each school, is startling. Teachers who work in a given school, and therefore teach students with similar demographic characteristics, can be responsible for increases in math and reading levels that range from a low of one-half year to a high of one and a half years of learning each academic year.
Sadly, Lake Wobegon doesn’t exist and not every teacher is above average. Centrally imposed evaluation systems, however, are not the answer for this problem. As the results from Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and Tennessee have made clear, these plans often turn out to be meaningless – most likely, because these teacher evaluation systems tend to be “blocked, diluted, and co-opted” by the education establishment, just like merit pay plans. Centrally imposing an evaluation system deemed optimal by the scientists and experts has not solved the Lake Woebegon problem.
If we want meaningful evaluations of teachers, we don’t need to mandate the evaluation. Rather, we need to give school leaders the ability and motivation to make their evaluations mean something. If school leaders actually had the authority and proper incentives to make positive pay or firing decisions based on teacher performance, we might start seeing some teacher evaluation systems that reflect reality.
James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie