Teacher Evaluation Lake Woebegon Hasn’t Been Fixed By Central Planners

(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.

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James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie

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7 Responses to Teacher Evaluation Lake Woebegon Hasn’t Been Fixed By Central Planners

  1. Barry Stern says:

    How about a teacher evaluation system that actually improves performance? A large Seattle hospital some years ago used Mutual Action Planning or “MAPPING” as our performance appraisal system. MAPPING is a 5-step process that can be applied to anything – a company, class, program, meeting, friendship or marriage. It consists of 5 steps: to identify …

    1. Things done well?
    2. Things to do even better?
    3. [From the “do better” list,] what one thing to do better in the next 3-6 months?
    4. Action plan for doing it better?
    5. Supervisors’ action plan to help you, i.e. what do you want your supervisors to do to assist you with your plan?

    When using as a performance appraisal system, the employee and supervisor each fill out the same two-page form prior to having a one-hour discussion about the employee’s performance. At the end of the discussion, a new completed form is produced that both employee and supervisor can agree with, including the metrics with which to assess how well each kept the agreement. Both sign it and agree on the date when they will meet again.

    SUPERVISOR NOTE: DO NOT HAVE THIS BIANNUAL DISCUSSION ABOUT PERFORMANCE AT THE SAME TIME WHEN DISCUSSING PAY. HOWEVER, YOU CAN USE APPRAISAL FORM DATA ON PROGRESS OR LACK THEREOF TO JUSTIFY DECISIONS ABOUT PAY.

    Following are the essentials of the form which each employer could customize:

    MAP
    Mutual Action Plan

    Name
    Self-Evaluation Form

    Mapping Session
    Date Time

    1 Things Done Well
    DESCRIBE SPECIFIC EXAMPLES OF YOUR BEST WORK, YOUR…
    Achievements
    Positive contributions to the school/employer
    Successes

    Give specific facts.

    2 Things To Do Even Better
    DESCRIBE ANYTHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO:
    Improve, Change or Learn

    SO THAT YOU CAN MAKE AN EVEN MORE VALUABLE CONTRIBUTION TO THE SCHOOL/EMPLOYER

    3 Select One Thing
    1. Pick one thing from #2 above that you want to work on. Pick a priority.
    2. Describe the present situation. Don’t write a goal here, just describe …
    What is happening now? Why does this concern you? (Give Facts: Who, Where, When?) How does it affect others?

    4 Employee’s
    Action Plan
    DESCRIBE WHAT YOU WILL DO TO ACHIEVE THE DESIRED CHANGE, IMPROVEMENT, OR LEARNING.
    1. WHAT will you do? (or your goal)
    2. HOW will you do it? List any steps you’ll take or any methods or procedures you’ll follow to achieve your goal.
    3. Describe the way the situation will be if your action plan is successful (standards to meet).
    4. WHEN will you do these things? (dates, times, dead lines)

    Be specific and realistic.

    5 Supervisor’s Action Plan
    SUGGEST ANY ACTIONS YOU’D LIKE YOUR SUPERVISOR TO TAKE THAT WOULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR ACTION PLAN.

    WHEN SHOULD HE/SHE DO THESE THINGS?

    TOGETHER, YOU’LL SET A DATE FOR THE NEXT MAPPING SESSION, AND SIGN THE MAP FORM.

    This form is yours. It is private and not meant to be turned in. It is designed to help you think about your job, so you’ll be ready to talk about it when you meet with your supervisor in the Mapping Session. Write as much or as little as you wish. Just be prepared to discuss the items on this form, numbers 1 through 5. Your actual appraisal will take place during the Mapping Session as you and your supervisor discuss your past performance and plan future achievements.

    Takeaway — better performance happens incrementally. It requires continual focus from and agreement by both management and labor on what it would take to provide better customer service. And the metrics defining “better” must be accepted and easily understood by all parties.

  2. […] (This post originally appeared on Jay P. Greene’s Blog) […]

  3. […] for bad teachers should be repealed, but states’ new test-tied teacher evaluation systems are ham-handed, biased central planning dictates. So is Common Core. Cartels and monopolies are never a good idea, whether the particulars emanate […]

  4. […] teachers should be repealed, but states’ new test-tied teacher evaluation systems are ham-handed, biased central planning dictates. So is Common Core. Cartels and monopolies are never a good idea, whether the particulars emanate […]

  5. […] for bad teachers should be repealed, but states’ new test-tied teacher evaluation systems are ham-handed, biased central planning dictates. So is Common Core. Cartels and monopolies are never a good idea, whether the particulars emanate […]

  6. […] for bad teachers should be repealed, but states’ new test-tied teacher evaluation systems are ham-handed, biased central planning dictates. So is Common Core. Cartels and monopolies are never a good idea, whether the particulars emanate […]

  7. […] for bad teachers should be repealed, but states’ new test-tied teacher evaluation systems are ham-handed, biased central planning dictates. So is Common Core. Cartels and monopolies are never a good idea, whether the particulars emanate […]

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