Washington state’s shift to comprehensive teacher and principal evaluations was triggered by the dangling carrot of federal money, but it should have been done long ago. With an eye on the next round of “Race to the Top” money, the Legislature passed a law in the last session calling for changes.
While it’s embarrassing that the state needed to be prodded to do the right thing, at least there is a plan in place to proceed. Some districts in the region have been selected to lead the way with pilot projects. Starting in 2013, all districts must comply.
The need should have been glaringly obvious. Evaluations have been so superficial that they’re practically meaningless. Teachers are either making the grade (almost always) or not (rare). Plus, evaluations hadn’t been altered to reflect the rapidly changing education landscape.
This is quite odd considering that the No. 1 factor for a student’s success is the quality of the teachers.
In studying why the state was falling short in hiring better math and science teachers, the Partnership for Learning found that evaluations were one factor. “Formal evaluation processes do not differentiate teachers based on their ability to help students learn, nor do they give teachers the feedback they need to improve their instruction,” according to a report released in January.
A 2008 report by the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory also homed in on evaluations, saying the state lacked “a coherent system to support entry, development and retention of quality recruits.” Furthermore, the report pointed to the “inability to dismiss ineffective staff.”
The Partnership for Learning analysis showed that 99.8 percent of teachers in the Spokane Public Schools were deemed “satisfactory” from 2005-’06 to 2008-’09. In the Nooksack Valley School District, every teacher was deemed “satisfactory.”
These absurdly positive numbers did not align with administrators’ or teachers’ perceptions of performance. Nearly half of administrators conceded that they assigned higher scores than some teachers deserved.
The good news is that a majority of teachers and administrators agree that change is warranted. Evaluations will now have four categories and more details. Many teachers noted that a lack of leadership was part of the problem. And that’s why new evaluations for principals are also a key component of reform. School leaders will now be judged on their ability to implement changes related to teacher assessments and effective instruction.
This increased accountability will only work if education leaders insist on it. It’s one thing to change a system. It’s quite another to follow through. Regardless of whether the state wins federal grant money, these changes are worth it.