Over the past three years, more than twenty US states have passed legislation establishing new teacher evaluation requirements and systems, and even more have committed to do so in Race to the Top or Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility Waiver applications. These new evaluation systems have real potential to foster a more performance-oriented public education culture that gives teachers meaningful feedback about the quality and impact of their work. But there are pitfalls in states’ rush to legislate new systems, and there are real tensions and trade-offs in their design.
Unfortunately, much of the current policy debate has been framed in stark ideological terms that leave little room for adult discussion of these tensions. This paper seeks to move the debate beyond ideology and technical issues by highlighting four key tensions that policymakers, advocates, and educators must consider in the development of new teacher evaluations:
- Flexibility versus control: There is a temptation to prescribe and legislate details of evaluations to ensure rigor and prevent evaluations from being watered down in implementation. But overly prescriptive policies may also limit school autonomy and stifle innovation that could lead to the development of better evaluations.
- Evaluation in an evolving system: Poorly designed evaluation requirements could pose an obstacle to blended learning and other innovative models in which it is difficult or impossible to attribute student learning gains in a particular subject to a particular teacher.
- Purposes of evaluations: New evaluation systems have been sold as a way both to identify and dismiss underperforming teachers and to provide all teachers with useful feedback to help them improve their performance. But there are strong tensions between these purposes that create trade-offs in evaluation system design.
- Evaluating teachers as professionals: Advocates argue that holding teachers responsible for their performance will bring teaching more in line with norms in other fields, but most professional fields rely on a combination of data and managerial judgment when making evaluation and personnel decisions, and subsequently hold managers accountable for those decisions, rather than trying to eliminate subjective judgments as some new teacher evaluation systems seek to do.
Recognizing these tensions and trade-offs, this paper offers several policy recommendations:
- Be clear about the problems new evaluation systems are intended to solve.
- Do not mistake processes and systems as substitutes for cultural change.
- Look at the entire education ecosystem, including broader labor-market impacts, pre- and in-service preparation, standards and assessments, charter schools, and growth of early childhood education and innovative school models.
- Focus on improvement, not just deselection.
- Encourage and respect innovation.
- Think carefully about waivers versus umbrellas.
- Do not expect legislation to do regulation’s job.
- Create innovation zones for pilots — and fund them.
NOTE: This report was published for the American Enterprise Institute.