One of the hottest topics in public education is the issue of evaluating teachers. Two years ago, a fierce competition for federal Race to the Top money prompted states to propose using data analysis to tie teacher performance directly to student test scores.
“I think we’ve all realized it’s far more complicated than it appears,” says Casey Cobb, Educational Leadership department head and director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis. “Educators in Connecticut want to use teacher evaluation more formatively, not only to hire and fire, but to develop instructional leaders in their schools,” he says.
Cobb and several Neag faculty members were architects, presenters and respondents involved in a recent two-day symposium on the subject that drew national experts and a sell-out crowd of administrators and educators. The idea for it was to examine the research before trying to put policy into practice.
Larry Schaefer, staff associate for leadership development at the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) and organizer of the symposium, said they planned a space for 100-150 participants, but in the first hour of online registration, 200 had signed up. “We had to shut it down. Nobody else got in,” he said, attributing the success to the hot topic, the national experts Neag lined up and the design of the symposium by Morgaen Donaldson, assistant professor of Educational Leadership and research associate at the Center for Education Policy Analysis. Donaldson is also a research affiliate of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard.
On the first day of the symposium, six experts from the University of Wisconsin, Neag and Harvard shared research and expertise. Their sessions showed the gray areas in using test results data to determine teacher and principal effectiveness, the positive role of peers in observing teachers in the classroom, the use of standards-based evaluations, and a point of view that, despite its pitfalls as a system, districts should use the more expedient Value Added Methodology to weed out bad teachers now for the sake of the students.
The second day focused on three Connecticut districts – Bethel, New Haven and Hamden – and their practices in the field of educator evaluation.
Donaldson says that some form of more formal evaluation is coming and that, before teacher evaluations became such a hot-button issue, “More often than not it’s just been a process that principals dutifully do and teachers dutifully endure, but it hasn’t really been meaningful.”
Betsy McCoach, a first-day presenter who has expertise in an assessment technique called growth curve modeling, wanted to impart that different analytical models will produce varying results. “It can’t be this panacea for teacher effectiveness. It’s really important to triangulate that information with other forms of information, like teacher observation,” says McCoach, associate professor in Measurement, Evaluation and Assessment in the Educational Psychology Department at Neag.
When she presented data showing that only a third of teachers who ranked in the top quartile one year would appear there in the next year, and that 10 percent ranking at the bottom one year would show up in the top quartile the next year, “People’s jaws just started to drop.”
“People like models because they can shift the work away and just get the answers at the end of the day. But you can’t necessarily trust it,” McCoach says.
Other Neag respondents and participants included Jessica Goldstein, assistant professor in residence in Measurement, Evaluation and Assessment; Robert Villanova, director and clinical faculty in the executive leadership program, and Anysia Mayer, assistant professor in Educational Leadership.
Schaefer noted that the Regional Education Laboratory Northeast & Islands of the U.S. Department of Education funded all of the experts chosen for the symposium’s first day, a sweeping endorsement that also kept the cost down for attendees. Symposium partners from Neag, the state superintendents group and the Connecticut Department of Education met recently to start planning a follow-up event, or perhaps two, in the research and practices format next year. “And we’re going to get bigger halls,” Schaefer says.
Cobb says this year’s symposium was meant to “slow down a bit and find out what works and what doesn’t work.” Next fall the focus should be on more practical applications and ideas on assisting districts to evaluate teachers fairly. And, then the state would be ready to embark upon action, augmented by professional assistance.
Cobb says Neag researchers would like to be there to assist in those new efforts, understand them, observe the successes and report back on the experiences. “That’s where UConn has something to add,” he says.