A good policy is meaningless if it isn’t carried out, and the state’s teacher evaluation system is a good example. It aims to give schools the tools they need to identify high-quality teachers, retain them, develop promising prospects and encourage ineffective educators to find another line of work. But school districts have not fully implemented it.
Exposing students to effective teachers is the single most important thing schools can do to boost student achievement, which is why lawmakers reformed state tenure law in 2011. The reforms established a teacher evaluation system that tied tenure decisions to teacher effectiveness and gave school leaders more control over staffing decisions. Legislation introduced this session — House Bill 4354 — would take away school leaders’ control and make it easier for ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom.
The evaluation system has changed since 2011, with the most recent changes taking effect in the 2018-19 school year. One-quarter of a teacher’s rating that year had to reflect student test scores, and the percentage increased to 40% in subsequent years. Standardized test data allows school officials to assess a teacher’s impact on student growth over time by using an objective standard.
Michigan schools statewide rated 99% of teachers as either “highly effective” or “effective” in the last three years. This happened even as Michigan’s students scored record declines in achievement on the M-STEP test. Clearly, the teacher ratings from 2020 to 2022 did not reflect student performance on the M-STEP, despite a state law requiring 40% of evaluations to reflect the amount of student growth. This discrepancy between teacher ratings and student test data represents a failure to implement the evaluation policy as intended.
When teachers are not properly evaluated on their performance, student achievement can languish. If the evaluation system were implemented as intended, it would give teachers valuable feedback, identifying their strengths as well as areas needing improvement. Schools and teachers would then know how to focus their professional development. There’s little room for improvement, though, when schools declare that 99% of teachers are effective enough. They are passing on the opportunity to improve student outcomes.
This is not the first time that failing to properly implement education policies has scuttled efforts to improve student outcomes. State law required districts, starting with the 2019-20 year, to hold back third graders who were one grade level behind in reading. Districts, however, used the well-meaning exceptions allowed in the law to promote to fourth grade the vast majority of retention-eligible third graders. The law is no more; legislators and the governor scrapped it earlier this year. If the law had been in effect long enough — and more importantly, enforced — students could have had better teachers, learned more, and be on the path to a better future.
Tennessee shows how a teacher evaluation system should work, if properly implemented. Tennessee’s system rates teachers on both classroom observation metrics (50%) and student growth and achievement data (50%), similar to the Michigan law. A Vanderbilt University Study confirms the value of the Tennessee law, saying it significantly improved student achievement since taking effect in 2011-12.
Tennessee’s average fourth grade reading score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased by five points by 2013. That’s a statistically significant increase no other state surpassed. Its eighth grade reading score increased by a record six points. And this growth was much faster than in comparable districts in other states. Tennessee achieved its record performance growth by implementing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system that focuses on two specific outcomes: teacher retention and teacher development.
After Tennessee implemented its reforms, there were more high-performing teachers in its schools and fewer low-performing ones. This change was not simply a result of more strategic personnel decisions by school officials. A significant number of low-performing teachers chose to leave. As for the most-effective teachers, they reported higher job satisfaction, which motivated them to stay.
Tennessee’s success in implementing its robust evaluation system helped the teachers who stayed become even more effective. They received in-depth feedback from school officials who regularly observed their classroom instruction, identified their strengths and recommended areas for growth. The more effective schools used more frequent observations performed by different evaluators, with an initial observation early in the school year. They also, unlike their counterparts in Michigan, did not rate every teacher the same.
Tennessee teachers were also more likely to stay in schools with highly rated principals. The state helped by investing in programs that helped principals be better leaders, which included giving teachers feedback on classroom instruction.
During the years since Tennessee’s reform, the state has continually assessed the policy’s effectiveness and adjusted its practices accordingly. The percentage of teachers who see value in the system continues to grow. About three out of four teachers believe it improves their instruction and student achievement — more than double the portion who did when the law first went into effect.
The lesson here for lawmakers is that it takes time to adopt and implement a successful policy. Creating a comprehensive evaluation system is just the first step. A steadfast commitment to its effective implementation and assessment over time is essential to long-term success. Michigan has largely failed to successfully implement its teacher evaluation system, but it’s never too late to change course and get to work improving student outcomes.
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