Column: How to make teacher evaluations work
There’s been a piece of legislation making the rounds in Lansing that could have a big impact on students and teachers. It’s called SB 103 and it would create a meaningful evaluation system to ensure students are getting a great education. That’s a good start, but it needs to be done in the right way.
You may be thinking: Doesn’t Michigan law already require that teachers be evaluated and given feedback on their jobs? The answer is technically yes, but there is nothing in the current law to ensure these evaluations are useful or adhere to the best practices we’ve seen work in other states. That’s where SB 103 would come in — as long as legislators in Lansing finish the work of improving the bill.
As it stands, as long as districts comply with some basic rules in state law, they can choose a research-based evaluation system that has been proven to be effective, or they can just make up their own, whether it works or not. And no matter what system they choose to adopt, right now they aren’t given the right tools to help them implement it well. But a version of SB 103 is being considered in the House Education Committee right now would fix these problems.
I had a theory: If people knew about SB 103 and the changes it needs to ensure great teachers are in classrooms across the state, everyone would support it. My team and I took the issue to the residents of southeast Michigan, knocking on doors to talk about it. My hunch was right — folks we met in the community agreed. It only makes sense, they said. Some residents were so passionate about our suggested changes that they made calls to their representative from their door step where we stood. This small sample size was encouraging.
Many people don’t like the idea of using tests alone to evaluate teachers, and rightly so. Good evaluations should include multiple measures, including classroom observations, which add a powerful extra dimension to assessments. But the usefulness of these observations is directly tied to the quality of the tools used and the skill of the evaluators in the process. In addition to making these observations required, we want SB 103 to include provisions to ensure a high-quality observation tool is used and training is provided on how to properly conduct these important in-person assessments.
With these simple improvements to SB 103, it can become a powerful fix to the state’s current evaluation system, which is far too lax to ensure we are achieving our intended goal: helping teachers improve.
Critics who oppose these common sense improvements to SB 103 argue that a statewide system would result in less local control. But this legislation isn’t about creating a mandate from the state.
The funding to provide the tools and training needed to improve SB 103 is already available. About $14 million was set aside last year to ensure that every district across Michigan is performing meaningful, high-quality teacher evaluations.
We know that teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school factor for how much a child can achieve in the classroom. As other states around the country adopt strong teacher evaluation systems, Michigan continues to fall behind at an alarming rate. In national assessments, we rank 40th in fourth-grade math and 38th in reading, but a decade ago Michigan ranked 12th overall.
Teachers want to be great, too. Without high quality observations and evaluations, districts are missing an opportunity to give teachers the support they deserve. It’s not fair that we promise to provide teachers with timely, quality feedback but then leave them with no clear sense of where they are succeeding and where they can improve.
We should give students what they need and give teachers what they deserve: fair evaluations that actually work to improve the quality of instruction.
Lindsay Huddleston is Michigan director of StudentsFirst.