Systems over substance: Why top-down teacher evaluation reforms are unlikely to boost student achievement

Thanks in part to the requirements of the Federal Race to the Top program, since 2010 states and districts across the country have adopted teacher evaluation systems that use student achievement as part of the assessment of individual teachers’ performance. Given the amount of energy and political capital the education-reform community has put into developing, negotiating, and implementing these plans, you would think it’s a sure fire way to boost student achievement. Unfortunately, the top-down nature of these changes may very well be undercutting any chance they have to make a real difference for kids.

Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.

The problem is not about the details of these evaluation systems—although clearly some are better than others—but rather who should be in the driver’s seat in making the decisions about how to hire, fire, and evaluate teachers. And the reality is that teacher-evaluation reforms are unlikely to succeed for reasons education reformers should know well: Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.

It wasn’t that long ago that education reform was driven forward by a commitment to freeing determined principals who had a vision for excellence from the constraints that prevented them from developing the teams and practices they needed to drive school-wide change. Today, by contrast, reformers seem to have lost faith in the transformative power of school leadership and are now pushing teacher-quality reforms directly from district offices and statehouses through a combination of legislative mandates (like the one passed in Illinois requiring at least 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on student achievement) and top-down evaluation systems (like those developed by the CPS, or those being implemented in New York and New Haven). What could go wrong?

A lot, actually. As I argued in a post published in February:

… in the end, it’s the school leader who needs to determine who are the most and least effective teachers in their school, and it’s the leader who needs to work with teachers and the school community to drive student learning. By creating a system that, by labeling teachers for them, essentially tells principals which teachers should be kept and which should go, we are absolving principals of their responsibility for evaluating their own teachers. And we’re allowing them to escape responsibility for the role they play in driving school-level student achievement and growth.

What’s more, even relatively balanced versions of teacher evaluation proposals, like the one being fiercely debated in the Windy City, oversimplify what is perhaps the most important challenge in all of education—how to translate teacher practice into student outcomes.

As Albert Einstein once quipped, “everything should be as simple as it can be but not simpler.” There is nothing simple about building, supporting and coaching a team of teachers to excellence. Unfortunately, most of the proposed teacher evaluations systems give the illusion that this work can be reduced to a simple formula and produce outputs that are nothing more than false precision. And the Manichean debate about these systems leaves little room for discussing whether principals are willing and able to provide the guidance and support that teachers need to succeed.

Focusing on student results is an important element of teacher selection and evaluation, but it’s not enough.

If we’re going to glean any lessons from the highest-performing private, charter, and traditional public schools around the nation, it should be that, while focusing on student results is an important element of teacher selection and evaluation, it’s not enough. Indeed, the key is pairing a focus on results with committed leaders who make the time to observe teachers regularly and provide systematic, specific, and actionable feedback on how they can improve their practice. And failure to link teacher evaluation reforms with changes in our expectations for school leadership will only serve to hold teachers accountable for what, in many cases, school and district leaders have failed to give them.

Partially in response to reformers’ push to link teacher evaluations to student outcomes, many are pointing to peer evaluation programs, like the one in place in Montgomery County, as models of what teacher evaluation should look like. They argue that Montgomery County’s system pairs evaluation with the kind of coaching and feedback teachers need to improve. Perhaps it does, and they’re right to highlight alternative models that might help us improve teacher quality. But even if it is groundbreaking, I’m equally skeptical that thrusting it on an unwilling or unprepared district is any more likely to succeed without strong teacher and leader buy-in. That’s because as anyone who’s ever worked in a school or district knows, no program is going to be successful unless a critical mass of teachers and/or leaders are on board and supportive of the changes it will bring.

This is something that all great leaders understand, sometimes intuitively: You simply can’t lead if nobody wants to follow you.

And that is where Rahm Emanuel has found himself. He is trying to push reforms on unwilling teachers through sheer force of will. The problem is, even if he gets his way, he’s likely to do more damage to the reform movement writ large because he hasn’t built the support he needs for his reforms to take hold and transform schools. And that means the results we all want are unlikely to follow.

The more reformers succeed in driving top-down reform, the more I find myself longing for a return to the entrepreneurial, educator-led, and results-oriented innovations that made so many of the charter networks we look up to so successful. That’s the moral center of the reform movement and we lose sight of it at our peril.

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