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Thoughts on how to improve teacher evaluations in Michigan

Mar 30, 2015

Credit user Wonderlane / Flickr

There's wide agreement among education experts that teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in how students do in school.

So how is Michigan doing when it comes to turning out effective teachers? And, how do we measure that effectiveness?

This week we're beginning an in-depth series on Michigan Radio - "Learning to Teach."

Currently, Michigan law requires that every single educator is evaluated every year, according to Michelle Richard. She's an education specialist with Public Sector Consultants.

Richard says these evaluations consist of two big components:

  • in-classroom evaluations by administrators,
  • and student growth measured by a test.

The student growth measurement, she says, is a relatively new addition that looks at statewide and local testing data to determine if students are really learning while in the classroom.

"I think that we've come a long way in making sure that the classroom observation side of the equation is fair to teachers ... The student growth side is a lot more challenging," Richard says.

Richard says measuring student growth is important, but we don't yet have a perfect way to measure it. Right now, districts are using a statewide measuring test. It's called the M-STEP. Districts once used a test called the MEAP.  Richard points out that the test does not measure every student (only certain grades are measured), and it doesn't test every subject.

She also says there are issues with sample size. With often only 30 students per class, it can take a few years to get a large enough sample of students to fully judge student growth.

"It is far from perfect," she says, "and I think we've seen our legislators tip a hat to that by delaying some of the implementation of requiring a bigger growth measure in teacher evaluations."

Michigan, like many states, began to focus more on teacher evaluations in 2009 when a study found that 99% of teachers around the country were judged as "satisfactory," meaning only 1% were found to be ineffective. Richard said that low percentage for "ineffective" teachers didn't mesh with most people's common experience.

Richard says President Obama encouraged states to increase focus on teacher evaluations in the first "Race to the Top" program.

"If you ask teachers, if you ask parents, if you ask students, they would tell you that there are some teachers that are not as good as others, and our evaluation systems just weren't picking those things up," Richard says.

Richard says President Obama encouraged states to increase focus on teacher evaluations in the first "Race to the Top" program. After that, states began to focus more heavily on these evaluations.

Since then, the debate around teacher evaluation has become quite political. 

Michigan lawmakers have continued to adjust evaluation processes, including creating the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness in 2011. It's an external group that hopes to find a fair way to evaluate teachers that aligns with research.

When asked whether these evaluations are a good measure of whether a teacher truly is, or is not, "effective," Richard says no single measure ever tells the whole story, but she says, "an imperfect measure, in my opinion, is better than no measure."

"I think that we've put some safeguards in place so that we are not making high-stakes decisions, like whether or not a teacher is laid off, whether or not a teacher is fired, based on a single observation in a classroom," she says.

She says the system of measuring teachers is based on more than one measurement.

"Right now, most of our evaluators are principals. And as many of us know, principals have a very big job description, and all of us only have so many hours in a day."

Richard sees a large problem in the infrequency of teacher feedback, citing how often other professions are given helpful assessments from management.

She says getting more people in the classroom to help evaluate teachers would help improve the evaluation process.

"Right now, most of our evaluators are principals. And as many of us know, principals have a very big job description, and all of us only have so many hours in a day," she says.

More evaluators in the classroom, she says, would provide a regular feedback loop to teachers so they know where they need to improve.