Opinion: Educators rate evaluation 'ineffective'

Paula Herbart

For some time, Michigan educators have been ringing the alarm bell about our broken evaluation system.

It’s time for policymakers to listen.

A recent survey of nearly 17,000 educators by Launch Michigan — a coalition of education, labor, business and philanthropic organizations — found only a third of teachers believe the evaluations they receive improve teaching and learning. Fewer than half think the system is fair.

Generic classroom photo with kids learning at Madison Elementary School.

These attitudes stem from changes made in 2011 and 2015 that increase the role of student test data in evaluations, ban educators from negotiating about the system used in their district, and tie personnel decisions to evaluation ratings.

Talk with teachers and they will tell you of the “Hunger Games” atmosphere created by the high-stakes system pitting educators against each other. Too many report the system has reduced collaboration, which is essential to helping students succeed.

Numerous studies have shown student test scores are not an accurate means of evaluating teacher quality, which is why many states are reducing or eliminating the role of standardized test scores in evaluations, as permitted by the new federal education law, the “Every Student Succeeds Act.”

State-mandated observation tools — and the increased bureaucracy and paperwork that come with them — have reduced the art of teaching to a one-size-fits-all checklist that doesn’t truly measure the talent of a teacher in helping students learn.

For example, Plymouth High School chemistry teacher Scott Milam was named the 2018 Michigan Science Teacher of the Year. Yet he has not achieved a “Highly Effective” rating on his evaluation from his district.

“I don’t know any of my colleagues who say this has helped them become a better teacher. It’s just really frustrating,” Milam said.

Furthermore, standardized test scores carry too much weight in educators’ evaluations, especially given that creativity, problem-solving, communication and collaboration are skills and qualities our students need to develop to be workplace-ready. None of that is covered on a bubble test.

The Michigan Legislature is reconsidering a scheduled increase in the percentage of teacher evaluations tied to student test scores — a jump from 25 percent to 40 percent is due to take effect this year. Senate Bill 122, which recently passed the state Senate, would put off that increase for one year.

Delay is not the permanent solution we need; this change merely keeps a bad system from getting worse. However, a one-year pause could provide an opportunity to make significant changes that move teacher evaluation from a punitive process to one that helps to improve teaching and learning.

MEA is encouraging lawmakers to pass SB 122 as soon as possible — and then work with educators to change the process to make it work for students and teachers alike.

Michigan educators have been demoralized by this evaluation process. Consider that alongside the well-documented failures of lawmakers to adequately fund public education in Michigan, and it’s not hard to see why we’re facing a teacher shortage.

Educators have seen cuts in pay, benefits, and supply budgets as class sizes have ballooned and supports for students have been slashed. Meanwhile, the bar for what we expect students to achieve has continually been raised.

Too many policymakers like to talk about “accountability” for schools and educators without taking much stock of their own. They need to listen and understand these problems — and then fix a system that can only be rated “ineffective.”

Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.