Teacher evaluation wars: How North Carolina gave peace a chance

As a growing number of cash-strapped districts face staffing cuts, district leaders are pondering the potentially negative impact of “first in, first out” rules for layoffs. The concern, of course, as highlighted in a recent study by Dan Goldhaber at the Center for Education Data and Research is that letting teachers go based solely on seniority will likely result in some good teachers losing their jobs while less effective ones remain in the classroom. And as Marguerite Roza at the Center on Reinventing Public Education has determined, laying off teachers at the bottom of the pay scale requires larger job cuts to balance budgets. The impact on students of letting go the newest teachers instead of lowest-performing ones, according to Goldhaber, could be an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per year.

So why don’t districts take teacher performance into account when making difficult reduction-in-force decisions?

One reason is collective bargaining rules—those hundred page documents that dictate all sorts of rules and procedures about hiring and firing teachers. Another is that many districts, even if they could dismiss ineffective teachers, often don’t know who they are.

For starters, as The New Teacher Project has noted, many teachers are not evaluated every year. On top of that, when teachers are evaluated, a sort of “grade inflation” exists with many current teacher performance evaluations. An examination of teacher evaluations in Colorado, found for example, that nearly 100 percent of teachers receive favorable ratings on their performance reviews.

To cut through the confusion, many reformers (as well as the federal Race to the Top program) have called for teacher evaluations to be based on actual student test results. Using just the right combination of data and statistics, the thinking goes, would allow us to create a “quarterback rating” of teachers, so we would let us know which ones are great, which ones need improvement, and which ones should be shown the door.

However, using this approach is fraught with all sorts of design challenges—for example, how do you measure the performance of an art teacher, a guidance counselor, or an eighth grade social studies teacher, when there are often no standardized exams in those subjects? Moreover, in New York City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, serious concerns have emerged over the accuracy of the student data and whether teachers are even being tied to their own students.

In addition—and this is no small obstacle—calls for tying teacher evaluation to student achievement quickly become mired in contentious debate, with battle lines being drawn between teacher groups, leaders, and reformers.

It doesn’t have to be so difficult, though.

A few years ago, officials in the state of North Carolina took a different approach. From the start, they brought everyone together—teachers, school leaders, academics and researchers. They started with a premise on which everyone could agree: the challenges of the 21st century require everyone to rethink teaching and learning, and, as a result, teachers must develop new skills to prepare all children for the future. In other words, North Carolina did not base its reform efforts on a punitive notion of ridding the state of bad teachers, but rather, on a positive vision that by working together, teachers, administrators, and policymakers could transform education for the state’s children.

Working together, North Carolina defined new, rigorous standards based on research about good teaching. Then they designed an evaluation system that aligned to those standards. The result is a set of “stretch” goals for teachers with clear a roadmap for how to get there. Leaders of the states’ teachers association and school leaders agree that the system, while ambitious, is also reasonable and fair. Read more about the efforts here and here.

The North Carolina experience demonstrates that states and districts are likely to get farther, faster if they base conversations about teacher evaluation on three basic assumptions on which, I think, we can all agree:

  1. Every child deserves a great teacher.
  2. No one becomes a great teacher overnight; it takes practice, clear guidance, and coaching.
  3. And as with any profession, not everyone has what it takes to be a great teacher.

Bottom line: Teacher evaluations should be as much about developing teachers as they are about grading them. If we start from these premises, the North Carolina experience suggest that as John Lennon once sang, we can give peace a chance, and more important, give our teachers the support they need, and our kids the teachers they deserve.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

14 Comments

  • Josie T. says:

    I have moved to Kentucky, but use to teach for 5 years in a NC public high school. I can understand your argument of wanting to base effective teachers on test scores, but sometimes you might have a great teacher and a class where the students are not great test takers, or just not great students, should that teacher be punished for one bad class. Here in Kentucky and the Indiana area, they are trying to get rid of horrible teachers, those that just do the basic stuff if that, but you can’t get rid of them because of tenure, get rid of tenure, make teachers responsible every year not just the first 5. As well as is it that great to layoff new teachers. I truly feel new teachers are wonderful in the fact that you can mold them into the highly effective teacher you want them to be. Teachers that have taught for 15 to 20 years are not going to change their ways. When I first graduated from college and looking for a teaching job, a lot of principles would not hire me because I had to experience, but one can not gain experience if you do not give them a chance

  • Amy says:

    I live in Indiana, where there is intense debate about education reform, especially in the areas of eliminating seniority, changing teacher evaluations, and changing teacher pay. None of the reform, however, directly benefits the students, and all of it is being done by portraying all teachers in a negative light. Yes, there are bad teachers that work in our schools. Yes, teachers should be held accountable for the student learning held in their classrooms. I agree with the idea of every teacher getting evaluated each year; the issue comes with exactly how to evaluate us. Our state is insisting upon tying our evaluations (which would decide layoff protocol if other bills pass as is) and our pay to student test scores. The form they want to use is about 50 pages long, and is mostly made up of information about the state test. Is it fair to evaluate me, base my job status and my pay, on one test that does not take into account student improvement, but only mastery, when I am given a class that 60% of whom did not pass the state test last year? I am making improvements with my students, but I fear it is not enough for the state’s liking. I also work in a school where our students are essentially leveled, and I work with a lower level of students. Is it fair that the teachers who work with the best and the brightest get paid more and get better evaluations? That would be like paying police officers more for working in districts with lower crime rates. The work the police officers do is only part of the puzzle, just as the work teachers do is only part of a complex puzzle. Where is the accountability for the parents? Where is the accountability for the students? As of right now, a student has no incentive to “do their best on the test.” They could just bubble in a pattern and nothing would come of it. I commend North Carolina for bringing the teachers into the conversation, instead of shutting them out as my state is currently doing. And for the record, Indiana does not have “tenure.” They simply have a due process statute that does not allow a principal to fire a teacher or not renew a teacher’s contract over petty personality clashes or simply to replace the teacher with someone who is cheaper.

  • jay says:

    I live in Georgia and I do not think that teacher pay and retention should be based on soley on test scores. I agree with what Amy has to say in her comparison of a teachers pay and a police officers pay. I cannot control my students actions when it comes to taking a test. However, I can give them the tools and guidance necessary to pass the test but in the end it is up to them. I cannot help or coach them on the test and if they have not done their part then that is not failure on my part. Perhaps my students are poor test takers. Also, I am not gifted endoresed and therefore have no gifted students. How do you take into account the students that are new to the country and still have to take the test, even if it is read to them. Do they truly understand? It’s like the old “Blueberry saying,” if I could pick and choose my blueberries then off course I would not mind my salary and retention as a teacher based on the best of the best being in my class. Of course I cannot choose my blueberries so therefor I have no “quality” control over who I have. I do agree there should be a better way to evalute teachers but it needs to have teacher input. Foremost the evaluation should be attainable, measureable, and fair.

  • Partly Cloudy says:

    Does anybody know the answer to my question:
    If a teacher is on the renewal license year and he does not get Proficient in all of the standards will he be able to renew his teaching license in NC? He has all of his continuing education credits and his 5 years teaching experience in place. He is seldom absent,but struggles with classroom management. Will he be fired for inadequate performance? Will he have a chance to be on an Action Plan? Will he be able to renew his NC Teaching License?

  • Partly Cloudy says:

    Partly Cloudy again.
    Forgot to say that this is the new NC McRel Teacher Evaluation too. All 3 observations/evaluations have had classroom management as developing and not yet proficient.

  • @ Partly cloudy. Sorry for the slow response to your question. I’d suggest you direct it to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. They should be able to help you determine the implications of performance evaluation results on tenure status. Feel free to contact me directly (bgoodwin@mcrel.org) and I’ll send you contact information for some people at NC DPI who should be able to answer your question.

  • Crystal Davis says:

    I agree with Josie about being given the opportunity to gain teaching experience. I graduated with a B.S. in Elementary Education in 2008 and I still have not been able to teach. I graduated with honors and was certified upon graduation and I had (still have) a passion and love for teachig but due to extensive budget cuts in South Carolina I am unable to start my teaching career. Every year I am told the same thing, “We are not hiring right now but we will hold your application just in case something comes available”. I have even been called for several interviews but was eventually passed over due to lack of experience. I’m not sure why school districts are so frighten by hiring beginning teachers. As beginning teachers, we come in with a fresh mind, ready to grow as a professional. I think the districts are under so much pressure to meet the state’s expectations that they feel they don’t have the time to train new teachers and they don’t want to risk losing state funding. All these political people can thik about is trying to make their dollars stretch but they do not take into consideration how those budget cuts effect the students directly. Many teahers lose their jobs and the teachers that were able to keep theirs are now faced with overcrowding in the classrooms. Now the students are not provided that one-on-one help that they may need to suceed. Teachers have enough stress in this profession without having overcrowded classrooms to the mix. Its like they took the concept of “less is better” and applied it to the number of teachers needed in a school. I believe that they will see the errors of their ways and hopfully it won’t be to late for the students.

  • Crystal Davis says:

    I would also like to applaud North Carolina on their efforts to take a closer look instead of just firing teachers without knowing exactly who they are firing. Other states need to take note of their actions and follow their example. I haven’t quit understood why, when money runs low, politicians rush to cut funds from schools first. Then they complain about the students not succeeded and then they fire more teachers. Its no wonder United States is headed to becoming last in the world on an educational stand point. If we put as much time and effort into providing proper funding and resources to our schools as we do in sending troops overseas to fight other people’s battles then our students would have a fighting chance at succeeding.

  • Joseph Brigham says:

    I have to agree with Crystal and Amy in the sense that educators are responsible for students learning but not for the same amount of progress. Standardized testing makes it difficult to determine achievement. It helps but at the same time, there are many variables that may alter the score of a student. This includes events taking place at home, the time they went to sleep the night before, some have testing aniexty,etc. How do you calculate pay for a teacher whose students have aniexty issues?,or Are not good test takers? We teach to different learning styles but our test does not match our methods. Unfortunately, the method of testing and the adaptation of different learning styles may never meet. I’m in Georgia and the pass five years has been hectic. They will have rolled out a new curriculum twice in the past six years and teachers are given a short amount of time to adapt. Teachers are still held accountable for a curriculum that they are not receiving training on. I hate to say this but the people who are making decisions law are not where teachers are currently. One rule can not apply to every student, just like we can not teach to one learning style.

  • Mozo says:

    As with any evaluation method, McRel’s can be used as a political tool in the hands of an “in-group.” My school system’s version of McRel has a “bug” that won’t allow a teacher to attach an artifact to contradict or refute an unflattering rating. After 20 years’ experience and accolades in another district, I am seeing evaluations from a new principal in this new district label me as mostly “developing.” Evaluators see what they want to see, and in my case, they want to see me replaced by someone cheaper.

  • tom white says:

    Mozo – that’s a really, really great point – “evaluators see what they want to see.”
    I am in NC and I had two different evaluations from two different administrators. The first evaluation was done by a stickler and it took almost 2 hours to complete because I had to argue with her about why I was distinguished on many of the standards. I am working on a doctorate so I felt inclined to argue.
    Then on the second evaluation, it was done in about 20 minutes or so and the administrator flew right through it.
    Why don’t people leave teachers alone and let us teach? This McREL system places more work on us due to the fact that we have to take time out of our ridiculously busy schedule to come up with (fabricate in some cases, I’m sure) “artifacts”. At least the old system was quicker and easier for teachers. And evaluation should not be about building a teacher. I think it could help, but most administrators I’ve dealt with in 15 years of teaching couldn’t teach their way out of a paper box. I teach high school science. I have never met a high school principal that knew jack squat about high school science. We’ve got one that was a PE teacher for heaven’s sake.
    To build a teacher you have to let the teacher teach, make mistakes, and have a colleague or administrator help them along. There is no way to teach someone how to teach. They either have it or they don’t. In all my years of teaching, I have only met maybe 1 or 2 incompetent teachers out of hundreds. There were some that were mediocre, but still took care of business. Teachers that are incompetent don’t last long because it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that they are incompetent when their kids are hanging from ceiling fans. Why do we need to spend millions of dollars on an evaluation system that we don’t even need? Evaluations should be school based and simple. Teachers don’t any more hassle than we already have.

  • Hope Brown says:

    I am a fifth year teacher who is being asked to move to a different grade level. I have received one observation this year and it was a formal observation. I believe I was to receive 2 informal observations as well. I have taught the same grade for 5 years and am now in a co-chair position. Can I be made to leave my grade because someone else just “wants” to teach in my current grade. Can I be forced to leave my grade without having the required amount of observations?

  • I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  • Peter Rouse says:

    In Australia we have a saying about a small percentage of the older teaching workforce:
    “Those who have retired and never told you.”

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