Potential unintended consequences of the new teacher evaluation approaches

Inspired by The Widget Effect and Race to the Top, a number of states have passed legislation linking teacher evaluations to test scores. Most of these laws require that 50 percent of an evaluation ultimately be based upon student test scores. On the surface, this approach to improving school performance sounds reasonable. But in reality, it glosses over a number of on-the-ground complexities and threatens to have a chilling effect on some promising school reform efforts.

These laws assume that students will be taught one subject by one teacher. That is, they assume schools of tomorrow will always look like the schools of today. Moreover these laws run headlong into two other popular reform efforts – blended learning and the movement to offer schools autonomy in exchange for accountability.

Blended Learning

“Blended learning” models typically combine traditional classroom-based learning models with innovative instructional use of technology. These models, which have various forms, could help students learn more, faster and at a lower cost. But only one form of blended learning (so called “face-to-face driver,” which entails having a teacher lead most lessons and use technology to enforce certain skills) might allow for evaluation based upon single-teacher-to-subject-test scores.

Under new teacher-evaluation laws, schools experimenting with blended learning will not only have to overcome facilities, logistical and technology hurdles, but will also have to find a way to meet new legislative requirements that were written with existing instructional models in mind. Likewise, other non-traditional methods of school staffing and instructional delivery that are explicitly encouraged by the federal efforts like the Investing in Innovation (I3) Fund face severe challenges in establishing the required connections between individual teachers and subject test scores.

Now is the time for states and districts to apply some critical thinking about how to craft evaluation policies that foster innovation while simultaneously holding school leaders accountable for objectively verifiable results.

School Autonomy in Exchange for School Accountability

The most obvious example of the “autonomy in exchange for accountability” model is charter schooling. But many school districts are experimenting with giving traditional public schools and their principals’ charter-like autonomy over critical levers such as school budgets, schedules and staffing.

If a charter or autonomous school (or simply a high-performing traditional school) gets great, objectively verifiable results for all children – without evaluating individual teachers based upon test scores – then what is the benefit of a government requirement stipulating how the school evaluate its teachers or pursue human capital reforms? These new requirements impinge upon school autonomy by imposing requirements that might not serve a useful purpose. Considering their potential to severely inhibit school leaders’ latitude in making critical staffing and school design decisions, it’s surprising that charter school advocates and other reformers are not more vocally opposed to these measures.

This spate of new teacher evaluation laws threatens to lock innovators into the current state of school design and curtails the autonomy of charter and other high performing schools. To date there has been scant attention paid to these types of issues (though Rick Hess’ excellent paper on Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning is a start). Now is the time for states and districts to apply some critical thinking about how to craft evaluation policies that foster innovation while simultaneously holding school leaders accountable for objectively verifiable results. Otherwise, we’ll end up squelching some of our more promising improvement efforts.