Before the Obama administration stepped in, the standard evaluation for the nation’s 3 million teachers was a cursory classroom check-in once a year by principals focused on quiet students and clean whiteboards—exercises that didn't focus directly on the quality of instruction, much less student learning.
Now, the picture is more promising. A growing body of research and dozens of interviews with policymakers, experts, and others suggest that the new, more comprehensive evaluation systems have strengthened many school districts’ focus on instructional quality. They’ve forced principals to prioritize classrooms over bus schedules and lunch menus and sparked conversations in school buildings about effective teaching that often simply didn’t happen in the past.
New information flowing from the improved evaluation designs seems to be helping education leaders make smarter staffing decisions. Prior to the Obama push, there wasn’t a single state that required school districts to weigh teaching performance—and not just years of service—in granting teacher tenure and the substantial job protections it provides. Now, with more dependable ratings in place, nearly two dozen states do so, the National Council on Teacher Quality reports. The District of Columbia’s school system uses the results from its new evaluation system to identify teacher-training institutions that produce the city’s highest-rated teachers and is prioritizing those providers in its recruitment of new teachers.
And school districts increasingly are going beyond identifying leaders and laggards, using evaluation results to help teachers improve their performance. In one example, the Brown University researchers John Tyler and John Papay have partnered with the Tennessee Department of Education to craft a program that matches teachers who do well on components of the state’s new teacher-evaluation systems with colleagues who struggle. In an experiment, teachers in schools where the peer partnerships were introduced were more supportive of tougher teacher evaluations than in schools that didn’t get the program, and the partnership schools turned in higher student test scores in subsequent years.
New digital companies like BloomBoard and TeachBoost have begun drawing on the results of the new evaluation systems to provide teachers with personalized “playlists” of model lessons, readings, and other improvement materials based on their evaluation results. In the past, public education has spent billions of dollars annually trying to improve teachers through what has been mostly a patchwork of widely disparaged workshops frequently having little to do with teachers’ individual needs.
The best of the new evaluation systems are supplying a foundation for a wide range of new, performance-based teacher roles that are making teaching more attractive. Hillsborough County, Florida, and New Haven, Connecticut, are among the school districts where highly rated teachers now serve as peer evaluators or lead teachers. While the use of student test scores in teacher ratings and the reform movement’s early focus on removing bad apples turned many teachers against the new evaluation systems, these emerging professional opportunities and the linking of evaluation results to improved resources are changing many teachers’ minds.