Evaluating progress: An update on the state of teacher evaluation reform

States are working hard to realign education policies, institutions, and personnel in the wake of the flurry of reforms prompted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top (RTT), and the NCLB waiver process. Improving teacher quality has become the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s education agenda and of the contemporary school reform movement. States’ efforts to reform teacher evaluation systems offer an excellent example of how State Education Agencies (SEAs) are adapting to their new responsibilities and the ways in which ongoing capacity gaps continue to impede their work.

Several reports and findings over the past few years have highlighted how difficult this work is and how short timelines as well as limited staff and funding complicate it further. In a 2012 paper for the Center for American Progress, “The State of Evaluation Reform,” I identified the opportunities and challenges facing education agencies in RTT grant-winning states as they prepared for the implementation of new teacher evaluation systems. 

Now, three years later, states have moved from planning and piloting to full implementation of the new systems. Many states have made considerable progress in rolling out their new evaluation systems, yet according to media coverage and a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in April 2015, struggles remain and most grantees have asked to extend the timetables for completing this work. Given the enormous importance and complexity of these reforms—and the fact that states vary widely in the timing, approach, and success of their implementation work—this is an excellent opportunity to assess the progress that has been made and identify where challenges persist. 

It is imperative that states learn from one another during this implementation stage, and in a recent brief for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) I highlight how the evaluation work is proceeding in a sample of six RTT states: Tennessee, Colorado, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. (see the full report here).


In general, states have made progress in setting up data systems, designing new observational rubrics, and training and certifying evaluators of teacher practice.  However, more work remains to be done around incorporating measures of student achievement into evaluations, particularly for teachers in non-tested subjects and grades.  States are also struggling with how to adapt professional development to the new evaluation process. 

Confounding these struggles are the challenges that states are facing trying to achieve meaningful differentiation in teacher ratings. Tennessee, Rhode Island, Florida, Indiana, and Michigan all rated more than 95% of their teachers as effective or highly effective during the 2013-2014 school year. The positive potential of these new evaluations systems is unlikely to be tapped, however, unless evaluators use them to meaningfully differentiate teachers on the quality of their instruction.  Having accurate performance data for teachers has many implications across the human capital continuum from staffing decisions, to differentiated pay plans, to promotion  into teacher leadership roles and providing professional development.  

Given limited resources, state leaders have to think about how to reallocate existing SEA staff and budgets to focus on new responsibilities, build capacity, and bring work that is funded by external grants on-budget. As they do so, they should consider comparative advantage and economies of scale—where the state can provide something that districts cannot. Providing technical assistance and policy interpretation, creating networks for information sharing, expanding assessment portfolios, and establishing online training modules are several areas where SEAs and state boards of education (SBEs) could add real value.  Below are several additional steps that states can take to support districts in the evaluation work.

1. Provide evaluator training and certification.

The Rhode Island Department of Education has developed a promising approach to providing ongoing evaluator training. Every summer it runs institutes for all evaluators: a two-day session for veteran principals and a more comprehensive four-day session for new principals and those who are new to an evaluation role. It also offers “calibration sessions” during the academic year in which a team from the department works with a district’s leadership team. In addition to training and certification for evaluators on the front end, it is also important for state boards, SEAs, and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to monitor results on the back end: Are evaluators achieving a meaningful distribution of observational scores? How well do those scores align with student achievement data?

2. Align evaluation systems.

Educators have long complained about the silos in their SEAs and district central offices and their isolation from the field. Given the interconnectedness of teacher evaluations with standards, assessment, and curriculum, state boards of education and administrators in SEAs and LEAs must ensure that these different areas are aligned. The principal evaluation system must be aligned with the new teacher evaluation system to ensure that principals are rewarded for giving priority to assessing and coaching teachers with rigor and objectivity.

3. Use evaluation to facilitate coaching.

Once new evaluation systems are operational, states need to ensure that the new information they provide drives personnel decisions and instructional improvement. For evaluations to inform classroom instruction, teachers need differentiated, targeted professional development that can accommodate the wide range of academic disciplines, grade levels, student demographics, and instructional specialists (i.e., for English as a second language and special education).

4. Centralize data collection and reporting.

Data collection and reporting systems are a crucial piece of infrastructure for the new evaluations. Districts and states need such systems in order to gather, analyze, and disseminate information about teacher performance: observations, student surveys, and student growth scores. This is where scale is helpful, and statewide solutions will be more efficient and reliable than each district reinventing the wheel.

5. Create a clearinghouse of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs).

Because most teachers work in untested grades or subjects, figuring out how to measure student achievement or growth in their classrooms remains perhaps the biggest problem confronting the new teacher evaluation systems. SEAs can play a productive role in identifying and designing assessments that are aligned with state learning standards. However, states vary widely in the extent to which they have created sample SLOs, aligned measures and centralized the assessment process for LEAs.

6. Share successes and struggles. 

Improving teacher quality has become the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s education agenda and of the contemporary school reform movement. The past few years have highlighted how difficult this work is and how short timelines and limited SEA staff, funding, and capacity complicate it further. In particular, states are struggling with the incorporation of student test scores into teacher ratings, how to measure student growth for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects, adapting professional development to the new evaluation process, and achieving meaningful differentiation in teacher ratings.

It is important to recognize that the early adopter states discussed here are not a random or representative sample of states. In spite of this limitation, other states can benefit from a close study of the challenges the early adopters encountered in reforming teacher evaluations and how they responded to those challenges, which can inform their own efforts going forward.