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A letter no Michigan parent wants to get: Here's your child's ineffective teacher

Apr 3, 2015

We know we want to attract and keep the best teachers in Michigan, but how do we know who the best teachers are?

School leaders across the state started measuring how teachers stack up in 2011. But the teacher effectiveness ratings, as they’re called, can be pretty useless.

Scarlet letters

If you’re a parent of school-aged kids, imagine for a minute it's three months from now. You check your mail and there’s a letter from your kid’s school. It says who your kid’s teacher will be next fall. Then it says that teacher has been rated “ineffective” for the last two years.

“Parents are going to freak out. And they should freak out,” said Tim Melton, a former Democratic state lawmaker who helped shape the law requiring these ratings. 

He quit the legislature in 2011 to work for Students First. That’s a parent advocacy group that’s behind the letter mandate.

The letter is supposed to freak out parents. The idea is, parents will pressure school leaders to either help that teacher, or get their kid out of that classroom.

“The fact is, if they’re with an ineffective teacher, they’re going to lose an average of three and half months of learning that year. That is not fair for the child,” he said.

In fact, Melton says the letters don't go far enough. He says ineffective teachers shouldn’t be allowed to teach – period.

In the world of Yelp and Google reviews, he says every parent should be able to see how their kid’s teacher is rated, ineffective or not.

“Look, when that teacher assignment comes out for next year, us as parents, what we do right now is we ask everyone in the neighborhood, ‘Oh did you have Mr. Smith or Mrs. Johnson? What did you think of them?’ That’s how I’m supposed to know if that teacher is a good teacher or not? Based on just anecdotal evidence at the bus stop?” Melton asked rhetorically.

Comparisons across districts impossible

All K-12 public school teachers in Michigan are ranked now. You can look up any school and find out how many good or bad teachers they have. But you can’t see individual teachers' ratings.

Most Michigan teachers, almost 60%, are like Kerri Reed. She teaches 6th grade at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Center for Economicology.

“Last year I was really into watching my scores,” Reed said.

Kerri Reed's 6th grade students' curriculum centers around sustainability at The Center for Economicology.
Credit Courtesy photo / Grand Rapids Public Schools

Reed made every effort to be ranked “highly effective” – not just regular “effective.” She missed that goal by a single point.

“It’s kind of frustrating as a teacher when you try; if you’re one who works to be highly effective and you really want that high score. To get it, it’s really hard,” Reed said.

While it may be difficult at Grand Rapids Public Schools to earn a coveted “highly effective” rating, it’s not hard everywhere.  That’s because these labels, from “highly effective” to “ineffective,” can mean totally different things depending on where you teach.

Each district has its own evaluation system. There is no standard.

“When we look at the data it really is, to me, overwhelming to see the huge variety,” said Erika Bolig. She heads Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Evaluations, Strategic Research and Accountability.

Bolig crunches the data districts send the state about teacher evaluations. She says there are almost as many ways to evaluate teachers as there are school districts in the state.

“They may use the same observations tools, but they use it in different ways, or they weight it differently across different districts, or only use certain parts of it,” she said.

What that means in a nutshell is “effective” Kerri Reed at Grand Rapids schools, could be “highly effective” at a different district.

Take Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences as an example. If Reed taught there, I’m pretty much guaranteeing she’d be “highly effective.” All of the teachers and administrators at that school are. The year before, 96% were.

But if you go to Michigan Technical Academy, also in Detroit, you’ll find a school that has zero highly effective teachers. None. It’s an anomaly among Wayne County’s lowest performing school districts, many of which claim to have high rates of “highly effective” teachers and administrators.

“To be 'highly effective' during the (teacher) observation, all of the students, that’s what the language says, 100% of the students have to be cognitively engaged in the activities and assignments,” Michigan Technical Academy Superintendent Jeremy Gilliam said. “That’s a very high standard.”  

At first, Gilliam’s teachers and administrators were like the rest of school districts in Michigan; for the most part, everybody gets good ratings. 97% of Michigan teachers are rated “effective” or “highly effective.” A little over 2% are “minimally effective” and only 1% are “ineffective.”

"What they're saying with their data is, the adults are good," Gilliam said, "I guess the question for the rest of the state is, then what's the problem if the adults are doing their job?"

But Gilliam says they knew they weren’t getting the best results for kids. So they took a harder look at what the language in the Charlotte Danielson model, a model that many districts use at least in part to evaluate their teachers, actually says.  It’s a high bar, but they followed that language to the letter.

“We have real conversations about what great practice is and to that extent it’s powerful. But if you’re not doing that and instead everyone is 'effective' and there’s no self-criticism, it’s probably not impactful,” he said.

There are plenty of people who don’t want a state-wide model for evaluating teachers. People like Berkley Schools Superintendent Dennis McDavid.

“What I worry about when the state gets involved is that our flexibility is reduced, our ability to deal with things is reduced, and it’s sacrificed at the altar of we’re all going to do this the same and I don’t think that’s a good trade-off,” he said.

When all of these teacher evaluation requirements were put in place a few years ago, the idea was that eventually, the state would come up with a standardized evaluation model. At this point, lawmakers have no intention of doing that.

Uniform state model or local smorgasbord, McDavid and Gilliam agree the standards should be high.

McDavid says he’d never be in the position to send a parent a "scarlet letter" about one of his teachers. He simply cannot fathom employing an “ineffective” teacher for two years in a row.

“I can’t imagine many districts who would say ‘we’ve rated a teacher ineffective two years in row and we’re going to give them a third year because we think there’s hope.’ I just, it’s hard for me to believe that goes on much,” McDavid said.

Gilliam says he may have to send home some scarlet letters this summer.

But he says that may be the nature of honestly evaluating teachers whose students don’t have stable home lives and are growing up in poverty.

“(The education system) works for my kids who are 18 and 14,” Gilliam said, “Works fine for them and they’ll always do well in school. It doesn’t work for poor kids.”

Gilliam’s kids attend schools in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Ile Township.

“We don’t have great teaching and great teachers there,” Gilliam said.

96% of teachers at Grosse Ile are rated “effective.” None were rated “highly effective” last year.

“Those kids do well regardless. They have relatively high income. They have high average household education level. They have functional families,” he said. “They’re not highly effective teachers. They don’t have to be, unfortunately.”