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Falling Short on Evaluations

Recently we asked members of the CTQ Collaboratory—including practicing teachers, administrators, union officials, and other engaged citizens—to rate their level of agreement with this statement: “Current evaluation systems help teachers significantly improve their practice.” Not surprisingly, the great majority—more than 75% of respondents—disagreed, with nearly one-fourth expressing their strong disagreement.

We encouraged Collaboratory members to unpack their responses a bit more. They cited a number of reasons why evaluation systems are falling short.

Some teachers feel the metrics used in evaluations are not valid. For example, educators in grades preK-2 and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teachers do not believe their effectiveness can be measured based on the test scores of children with whom they have little to no interaction. They want to be held accountable—but only for those students whom they actually teach. It is estimated that only about one-third of educators teach subjects and grade levels for which standardized tests actually exist. As a result, many teachers are evaluated using surrogate test scores.

Administrators as evaluators
Other survey respondents shared concerns about administrators’ lack of time, training, and (in some cases) teaching expertise to properly observe and reflect on teachers’ performance. As one teacher explained:

I see my own administrators less than I used to. They are not as accessible, and I can tell they feel buried in paperwork. We have a 30-page rubric for every teacher. When filling out the evaluation forms is tedious and stressful, how good can the evaluation be in terms of professional growth?

Primary Sources survey
In February, Scholastic, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, released results from the Primary Sources survey, which included a much larger sample of America’s teachers (20,000). The results revealed a great deal about teachers’ experiences with a wide range of reforms, including how they are assessed and judged. Almost 70 percent reported that their school systems have “transitioned” to a new, more rigorous approach to teacher evaluation that uses multiple metrics, including more classroom observations, stronger criteria, and evidence of student learning through standardized test scores.

Here is what the national sample of teachers tells us:

  • Only eight percent of respondents found their evaluations to be “extremely helpful.”
  • Only six percent strongly agree that state standardized tests are accurate measures of student learning. In comparison, 39 percent strongly agree that portfolios of student work and students’ performance on projects and assignments are accurate measures of student learning.
  • More than two-thirds (69 percent) reported feedback had helped them improve their practice, yet only 13 percent received customized professional development.
  • Similarly, just 17 percent have received classroom supports and resources to meet their needs.
  • Newer teachers (teaching four years or less) are more likely to receive customized support and resources than their more veteran colleagues.
  • Teachers in districts and states with newly transitioned evaluation systems are no more likely to receive follow-up support and resources to improve their practice than teachers in districts with unchanged evaluation systems.
  • When asked what could be done to improve their evaluation, 42 percent of teachers requested more personalized feedback in a timely manner. One middle school teacher summarized it well: “I wish that teachers could receive feedback on a regular basis that was a narrative of what we are doing well and where we need to grow.”

Collaboratory members’ responses
The Primary Sources data mirror the responses from Collaboratory members: many teachers believe current evaluation systems fail to offer specific, actionable supports for improvement. All teachers—even those deemed as effective—desire customized professional learning opportunities and ongoing support to hone their craft. One Collaboratory member reflected:

I am considered to be an excelling teacher according to the [evaluation] rubric, but I could improve my instruction and would like to know how.

Yet there is hope. Many educators  believe that teachers themselves are well-suited to observe and evaluate their peers—which would free up time for burdened administrators and offer mutually beneficial learning opportunities for all involved. Nicole Huff, a former peer evaluator in Florida, observed firsthand how much her own practice developed from serving in that key role:

[Working as a peer evaluator] changed who I was as a teacher and how I think about lesson planning and teaching now. I learned so much from watching others and getting the opportunity to think about these lessons from the standpoint of the students in the room.

When teachers help develop and implement evaluation systems, they feel more invested. One Collaboratory member from Kentucky lauded his state’s efforts to involve teachers throughout the planning process:

From everything I have read or experienced about the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES) implementation in our state, it will promote teacher autonomy in choosing logical next steps for professional development for teachers that are masters of their craft. The PGES, if driven by teachers, has the potential to change the entire conversation about professionalizing teaching in Kentucky.

We agree. Robust evaluation systems, if driven by teachers, have the potential to transform the teaching profession. Highly successful countries like Singapore have already developed and implemented systems that evaluate teachers’ performance as well as offer feedback and supports for improvement—beginning in teachers’ preservice programs. It’s time for states and districts in the U.S. to stop falling short and start tapping into teachers’ knowledge and skills to create and sustain stronger, more effective evaluation systems.


Precious Crabtree commented on March 11, 2014 at 9:19pm:

Redirect our Focus & Redefine our Roles

~~As a country, we have focused so long on what is wrong in education that we forget to celebrate what is right.  Educators (for the most part) want to collaborate, support, and learn together.  They understand that it is through collaboration we can support one another in lesson planning, assessment creation, and constructive criticism.  In situations where this is happening, not only do the teachers benefit, but the students' learning environment improves as well.

Evaluation systems, I believe, fall short because they tend to focus on the wrong things.  While student growth is very important, we need to consider how student growth happens.  Standardized tests truly don’t capture students’ growth as a whole.  So why do we connect teacher evaluations with them?  Can we take a step back to consider again… how does student growth happen?  What are the variables that lead students to become responsible global citizens?

If we redirect our focus to what great teachers do to excite, engage, and energize student learning then we can help educators develop those skills. If we move away from punitive evaluations and instead encourage educators to set their own goal, which guides their professional development, don’t we begin to evaluate them based on growth versus a snapshot?

I truly believe time should be embedded in the day for peer observation, collaboration, and planning. We are part of a “village” that educates a child. We are invested in each child, but shouldn’t we be invested in each other too?  Instead of one chief, we need a community where we all support one another.  Instead of proving that we are excellent teachers, we could then focus on being excellent teachers.

Barnett Berry Barnett Berry commented on March 13, 2014 at 4:31am:

Great insight

Great insight PC. Your words "While student growth is very important, we need to consider how student growth happens," tell an important storyline in the ongoing saga in the US over how to assess teachers. Focusing on "how students grow" would be a narrative changer.  The implications are enormous. No longer would statisticians and CEOs of "data" companies or evaluation consultants serve as the linchpin for how teachers are assessed. Large cadres (and I mean very large) of peer reviewers would be needed to interpret the evidence. Teachers would have to teach less so they understanding teaching more.  HMMM. Ok that is what they do in Singapore! (:-)

Windy Mitchell commented on March 18, 2014 at 11:03pm:

Teacher Portfolios

I'm working on National Board Certification this year and was thinking about how much more this process helps me improve my craft than the evaluation offered by my administrators. What if teachers had to prepare an annual entry for an on-going professional portfolio that was reviewed by administrators and  peers?  It could be similar to NBPTS' Take One.  Teachers just going through the motions would quickly be weeded out while those truly interested in doing better would have gone through an enriching process. 

Gwendolyn Eden commented on April 21, 2014 at 4:09pm:

time for a broader view

I agree that the process of becoming a better teacher that leaders to better student outcomes (as measured by standardized assessments) requires time. Whenever my school has systematized peer observations and we've taken the time as professionals to reflect deeply on what we're seeing and learning from each other, I've learned a ton. I love it. The academic geek inside me jumps for joy.

However, this systematization always occurred in addition to all of my regular duties. There was no coverage or time off provided to do this. This means that teachers who are struggling are going to be less prone to do this work, even though they need it most. I agree, Mr. Berry, that we need time in order to make this happen. Being in front of kids 75% to 90% of the work day means that what I present to them is not the quality that I want it to be.

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