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Opinion: Reevaluate teacher evaluations

Paula Herbart

How would you like your child’s teacher to be evaluated? By the number of correct “bubbles” filled in on a standardized test? Or by creative lesson plans that develop critical thinking skills under that teacher’s tutelage?

If you chose the latter, you are in good company. Last spring, a survey of nearly 17,000 educators conducted by Launch Michigan found that two thirds believed the current evaluation process does nothing to improve teaching and learning.

A classroom.

It’s clear that improving our teacher-evaluation system needs to be a priority for Michigan lawmakers.

Last school year, legislators voted to delay a law that would increase the weight of student standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. That increase — from 25% to 40% — will take effect this year if lawmakers don’t take action.

Numerous studies have shown student test scores are not an accurate means of assessing teacher quality, which is why many states are reducing the role of standardized test scores in evaluations, as permitted by federal law.

Policymakers in those states are on the same page as educators here in Michigan:  High-stakes tests — and the increased bureaucracy and paperwork that go with them — have reduced the art of teaching to a one-size fits all checklist that doesn’t truly measure a teacher’s effectiveness.

These tests became critically important to teachers’ job security when lawmakers decided that they should be directly linked to evaluations. When layoffs happen, test-score-driven evaluations can determine if a teacher keeps her or his job.

Teachers want an evaluation system that helps them become better teachers instead of the current “test and punish” system that forces them to focus more on testing than teaching. That misguided approach discourages teachers from employing experimentation, creativity and collaboration (skills employers are looking for), as those are not measurable on a standardized test.

The punitive nature of current evaluations is a driver of educator dissatisfaction. In 2013, the Michigan Council on Educator Effectiveness issued a groundbreaking report finding that teacher evaluations are most effective when used to improve classroom teaching skills, not as a punishment for perceived deficiencies in performance

More than half of teachers found the evaluation process unfair. Under current law, teachers are no longer allowed to negotiate about the evaluation system used in their district. There are no required processes for teachers to dispute their evaluation, especially in situations where a negative evaluation can cost someone their job.

Add to this Michigan’s lagging school funding and the overall lack of respect for the teaching profession, and the exodus of educators shouldn’t be surprising. Historic numbers of new teachers are leaving the classroom within the first five years, while colleges report record low enrollment.

Michigan must act now to address educators' legitimate concerns. Reduce the weight of standardized testing, and use meaningful data to help guide improvement in teaching practices. Mandate dispute resolution processes so educators have a voice in their evaluations.

And, most of all, refocus teacher evaluations on what’s important for students: helping educators improve their skills to drive better results, rather than punishing them for factors beyond their control.  

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.