By Amber Arellano/Education Trust-Midwest
Students in Michigan are increasingly falling behind their peers in other states, including states that are making major investments in their teachers.
Michigan, meanwhile, has struggled to develop its teachers. A report by my organization, the nonprofit Education Trust-Midwest, helps to explain why: Our local school districts and charter schools have diligently tried, but failed, to produce constructive, reliable teacher evaluation systems that lead to real classroom improvements for students.
The good news is state political and educational leaders have a chance in the coming months to create Michigan’s first teacher support and evaluation system, with a focus on giving teachers the feedback and training they deserve — yet so often fail to receive.
If we’re serious as a state about raising student learning, there is nothing more important than investing in strategies to help our teachers improve. Research shows that teaching quality is the most important in-school factor in a student’s success.
Unlike leading states, Michigan lacks a common definition of effective teaching, leaving it up to every school, administrator or teacher preparation program to develop their own visions of quality teaching. That must change.
What will it take? Three things:
* This winter, the Legislature and Governor’s Office must fund a serious, research-based teacher evaluation system for use by next fall.
* Experts on the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness must develop such a system by the spring, including rigorous state standards for those local districts and charters that seek to use their own model. The state must also provide feedback and oversight, particularly in the first years of implementation.
* The Legislature needs to approve the council’s work by June 2013.
Clearly, the patchwork of local evaluation systems isn’t cutting it. Our report examined the quality of more than two dozen systems created by local districts and charters across Michigan for the 2011-12 school year. Despite their hard work, these systems all lacked at least one key, research-based component that would ensure high-quality evaluation and professional development.
That’s not a knock on local officials – they simply do not have the expertise or the capacity to develop these complex systems.
Where did these systems falter?
* Reliability. State law requires that part of a teacher’s evaluation be based on how much students learn during the school year. Yet not one of the 28 models surveyed contained a student growth measure that was technically sound. Some schools also did not apply the same performance criteria to all teachers.
* Master teachers. Smart evaluation takes time that many administrators lack. Michigan must develop new roles for high-performing teachers to assist administrators with evaluations and share their expertise with colleagues.
* Clear methods and feedback. Many districts or charter networks used checklist-style observation forms that tell teachers almost nothing about how they might improve. Most systems also were unclear on how to combine student growth with other performance measures. Teachers may not get fair evaluations without proper scoring frameworks.
Despite these challenges, we recognize that much good is coming out of local efforts to develop evaluation systems. Still, our schools clearly need the guidance and resources that leading states provide. Michigan leaders need to ensure that greater accountability for teacher performance comes with greater support. To make teacher evaluations truly about helping teachers improve, we also need to ensure that individual teacher evaluation ratings will not be released to the public. Why is this so important? By forcing schools to make such information public, as a new bill proposes, it would have a chilling effect on districts’ efforts to give honest evaluations, which would help prevent struggling teachers from getting the help that they need. That would be a disservice to everyone, especially children.
It is imperative that Michigan gets this work right. It’s important to teachers, who work long hours and never stop trying to get better. And it’s essential for students, whose academic futures are inextricably tied to teacher performance.