Should teacher evaluations be tied to student growth data?

Teacher quality is widely acknowledged as the most crucial school-wide factor impacting student learning. There’s nothing that benefits students more than having an effective teacher in the classroom. Naturally, when the recent “State of the States” report from the National Council on Teacher Quality revealed that several states like Kentucky have backed away from research-supported teacher evaluation practices, it’s no surprise that it got people talking.

Most of the hooplah over this new study comes from Kentucky’s failing grade for not requiring “objective measures of student growth to be included in a teacher’s evaluation score.” In other words, while Kentucky teachers are evaluated on a number of factors like planning, professionalism, and in-classroom observations, our effectiveness ratings aren’t actually influenced by the factor that should seem the most important: student growth.

That’s not to say that teacher evaluations should be tied exclusively to test scores, but clearly, NCTQ would really like to see  student growth data take on some sort of role in the process. And that raises an important question for Kentucky lawmakers: should student growth be a part of Kentucky teachers’ evaluations?

A Tricky Task In Kentucky

Most folks on the reform side of the issue, including NCTQ itself, are quick to agree that student growth data should at least be a component of Kentucky teachers’ evaluations. In the past, that’s actually something we’ve done here in the Bluegrass: just a few years ago, teachers were required to identify a “student growth goal” for a given skill and collect data throughout the year as evidence that their students were improving. That’s no longer a requirement, which is one reason why Kentucky wasn’t quite up to snuff in this recent report.

The other side of that coin is that, in Kentucky, student growth on standardized tests like KPREP aren’t a part of teacher evaluations either. That’s where things really get dicey.

NCTQ deems that Kentucky teacher evaluations would paint a more accurate picture of a teacher’s effectiveness if they included student growth data from state tests. And when you think about it, that makes sense: it’s not exactly fair for two teachers to both earn an “effective” rating if one consistently shows higher student growth than the other. Test scores may not be the end-all-be-all, but considering them as a factor of a teacher’s overall rating would at least slow down the saturation of “effective” ratings in places like Florida, where 98% of teachers are effective. (And there’s simply no way that’s true.)

But on the other hand, NCTQ also recognizes that politics and institutional shifts play a big role in the consideration of these kinds of changes, and if you know anything about Kentucky at all, you’ll know we’ve been fraught with both these past few years.

In the same breath that chastises states like Kentucky for moving away from “objective measures of student growth” in teacher evaluations, the NCTQ report also concedes that “States undoubtedly have myriad reasons for making [these] change[s], including political shifts in some states and implementation challenges in others.” That’s certainly been the case in the Bluegrass, where we’ve recently adopted new standards, a new accountability and school rating system, and even gained a new Commissioner of Education. If you think tying evaluations to test scores would be an unpopular move among teachers, imagine how much more so when those tests are brand new.

Finding a compromise in a place like Kentucky would be difficult, undoubtedly, but I actually think this a good conversation-starter and point of departure for teachers and lawmakers alike.

Kentucky teachers care deeply about their students, and generally speaking, they do a great job of providing them the skills and resources they need to succeed. They’re doing more with less in just about every case, and they need support and constructive feedback to continue becoming all they can be. That should be the purpose of teacher evaluations, after all — to identify strengths and weaknesses, and to develop a plan for continued growth.

But inevitably, student growth data shows us a picture that no other kind of data can. There may be a lot of buzz going on now about how — and to what extent — that data should factor into teacher evaluations, but I don’t look for it to settle down anytime soon. Hopefully, more conversations like these will help build a foundation we can all feel good about.

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