We Evaluate Doctors. Why Not Chicago Teachers?

Smart evaluations of teachers work
Thousands of Chicago public school teachers and their supporters march through the Loop after the union failed to reach an agreement with the city on compensation, benefits and job security. Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Can teacher evaluations be done horribly wrong? Of course. Evaluating teachers solely on the basis of their students’ scores on standardized tests can accidentally penalize good teachers while rewarding bad ones. It also gives teachers a strong incentive to teach to the test, which encourages what New York educator Kate McKeown calls RAMIT: “regurgitate, acculturate, memorize, isolate, and threaten.”

But to say that evaluation can be done wrong is not to say it should never be attempted. We evaluate doctors. Why not Chicago teachers?

A strike by Chicago teachers that began on Sept. 10 is keeping 350,000 students out of the classroom. “Onerous” evaluations are one of the union’s complaints. Illinois law requires student test scores to be a factor in new teacher evaluation systems by 2016. Chicago is getting a jump by introducing new evaluations in 300 schools this fall, the Associated Press reports.

Aren’t Chicago teachers already evaluated? Technically, yes. But as of 2007, 99.7 percent of them received a satisfactory to distinguished rating, according to the AP. Evaluations so gentle do nothing to protect students from sub-par instructors.

New research funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others shows that teacher evaluation can improve learning when it is done intelligently. That means supplementing test scores with seasoned judgment from independent evaluators and providing teachers with detailed, personalized feedback that they can use to do their jobs better.

The Christian Science Monitor highlighted the new findings in an excellent article last month by staff writer Amanda Paulson called “Back to school: How to measure a good teacher.”

The Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching study found that the most important elements in an evaluation are detailed observations of a teacher’s performance, test scores that try to isolate the teacher’s contribution, and surprisingly, students’ own ratings of their teachers on how well they support students, challenge them, and give feedback, Paulson writes.

At Achievement First Bridgeport Academy Elementary School, a charter school in Connecticut, first-grade teacher Ted Eckert got an 11-page assessment at the end of his first year of teaching that included, Paulson writes, “the results of surveys from his students’ families, fellow teachers, administrators, and four observation scores: three formal ones, and a fourth score based on frequent informal observations.” Eckert called it “a really complete picture of not only me as an instructor and teacher, but as a professional on a staff with lots of moving parts.”

The Chicago Teachers Union observes correctly that teachers can’t solve every problem that a student brings from home. “Instead of working on the factors that account for most of the achievement differences, such as health, poverty, mobility, segregation, and school leadership, legislation is focused narrowly on teacher evaluation,” the union says on its website.

But the union’s point is pointless. Schools have no control over students’ health, poverty, mobility, and segregation. Only one of the factors that the union cites—school leadership—is under the control of the Chicago Public Schools.

As for students’ test scores: They’re a flawed measure, but they do have predictive value, according to Darleen Opfer, director of RAND Education, a division of nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. “Teachers who lead students to achievement gains in one year or in one class tend to do so again in other years and classes,” Opfer wrote in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 11.

Chicago school negotiators originally wanted student scores to count for 45 percent of teacher evaluations. The teachers bargained that down to 25 percent, Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, told the AP. The percentages and the timing are still in contention. Is Chicago’s evaluation system perfect? Probably not. But it has to be better than one that found 99.7 percent of Chicago teachers are doing a satisfactory to distinguished job.