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Teacher Quality

Updated: Jul 24

Can it be assessed through student outcomes?

Recent research supports a direct link between teacher quality and student learning. At the same time, it is argued that the current teacher evaluation systems are not working. Under current teacher evaluations, most teachers are rated as exceptional. Yet students perform far below the exceptional level on state, national and international assessments. Although numerous factors contribute to student performance, there appears to be a disconnect between teacher ratings and student performance. Precisely which elements of teaching lead to improved student learning and how to measure those elements remains unclear.

The words above were written by Sarah Melvoin Bridich for her dissertation at the University of Denver in 2013. The focus of her graduate study was Colorado’s Senate Bill 10-191, an education mandate which “aimed to improve student learning by overhauling the teacher and principal evaluation system and eradicating teacher tenure”. This knee-jerk response that SB 10-191 mandated is indicative of just far the chasm has grown between teacher ratings and student performance.

The “disconnect in the dichotomy” that Bridich mentions is one reason education is in chaos. Those ratings of teacher performance were (and still are) based primarily on one person’s subjective interpretation of a list of Quality Indicators:

Professional Preparation a) Demonstrates accurate, up-to-date knowledge of subject matter. b) Demonstrates knowledge of how to integrate subject matter and literacy across content areas. c) Implements research-based best practices in instruction. d) Develops lesson plans incorporating effective lesson design. e) Plans and implements district-adopted curriculum through alignment of resources and assessments. f) Aligns content within course and with previous and succeeding grades/courses.

Professional Practices a) Communicates to students expectations for learning. b) Models and facilitates higher-level thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and flexibility. c) Adapts instruction to meet the instructional needs of all students. d) Administers all building, District, and State assessments with fidelity. e) Uses a variety of assessments to make instructional decisions. f) Explicitly communicates criteria for student success. g) Develops a safe and welcoming learning environment. h) Collaboratively develops, models, and communicates clear expectations for student behavior within a learning environment. i) Develops and carries out appropriate consequences in the classroom.

Professional Responsibilities a) Participates in professional learning opportunities and applies what is learned. b) Establishes and maintains professional communication, which is clear, responsible, and respectful. c) Establishes and maintains meaningful two-way communication in a timely manner with students and guardians. d) Collaborates to accomplish team, school, and district goals and practices. e) Maintains up-to-date records of student progress according to District policy and school norms.

How can any principal know all this about any one of her teachers? The short answer is, she can’t. But she can pretend to, writing up narratives that either praise the teacher or ding her for incompetence. Every bit of the report-out of these indicators is subjective; it follows, then, that a teacher’s rating depends in large part on her favorable standing with the principal, which takes us back to an earlier statement by Bridich:

Under current teacher evaluations, most teachers are rated as exceptional.

We can probably add that “this is most likely because it is easy to rate someone you like as exceptional”. Most teachers hired and retained by a principal are probably also liked and valued by her.

Those outside education but with a front-row seat to its ineffectiveness had a hard time wrapping their head around this, the idea that teachers could be rated excellent by their principal even while student performance was at times mediocre. The entire teacher evaluation system, they reasoned, was no more than a façade, with all participants going through the motions of a choreographed dance, but without any real repercussions for missteps.

The problem with comparing supposed teaching performance with student outcome is that we are all assuming the evidence of that outcome (test results) has been obtained through earnest effort. Has it?

Look at the questions on state assessments that are based on PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Here is a question for third grade math:

There is also a Part B to tackle. The full math battery is usually three to five tests, with around 50 questions per test and a time limit of 60 to 90 minutes, depending on grade level.

Here is an item from “critical reading” for third grade:

This article continues with six more paragraphs and includes 7 questions, the first of which appear here:

As with math, there are several reading tests, assessing critical reading, vocabulary development, and literary analysis. This is third grade. The child is expected to wade through these test questions entirely on his own and to tackle them with fidelity. How many 8-year-olds do you think will do that? In regular class, the child is encouraged to ask questions when he doesn’t understand something and to work with partners to troubleshoot his reasoning when it falls short. Testing requires just the opposite. Is it any wonder that many students opt out of putting forth a best effort? Yet society places tremendous stock on the results procured by these tests.

Perhaps it’s time to address the disconnect between what students have been taught and how they choose to display their knowledge.

Because test performance on any given day is the student’s choice.

If a test requires a great deal of thought, interpretation, and problem-solving, why would any student push himself to do well on it? The only reason I can think of is that the test is important to him: how he fares on it will have a direct impact on his education, such as classroom placement and even grades. At present, this is not the case, and students know it.

This is where any reform efforts must begin, with the value the recipient places on his own learning. Without addressing that, any other reforms are doomed to failure. The evidence can be seen in how SB 10-191 has been implemented over the last 11 years. Teachers are still rated excellent, in large part, while student test scores remain consistently low.

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