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‘Widget Effect’ report: ‘Meaningless’ teacher evaluations need improvement

A new report is urging school districts across the country to beef up their methods of evaluating teachers, which the report describes as so slipshod as to be “largely meaningless.” The report, by a nonprofit group that has clashed with teachers unions in the past, describes the poor evaluations as “just one symptom of a larger, more fundamental crisis—the inability of our schools to assess instructional performance accurately or to act on this information in meaningful ways.”

The report is called “The Widget Effect” because accuses districts of treating all teachers alike, regardless of how much they help students learn. It goes on:

This inability not only keeps schools from dismissing consistently poor performers, but also prevents them from recognizing excellence among top-performers or supporting growth among the broad plurality of hardworking teachers who operate in the middle of the performance spectrum. Instead, school districts default to treating all teachers as essentially the same, both in terms of effectiveness and need for development.

The report, conducted by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit founded by the lightning-rod D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, calls on districts to develop more robust teacher evaluation systems that reward successful teachers and easily identify less successful teachers.

The report comes amid a growing push to improve teaching quality across the country. President Obama has said that teachers who are not helping students learn should be removed from classrooms, and even the national American Federation of Teachers union is working internally to build a new method of evaluating teacher quality.

The report bases its findings on surveys of thousands of teachers and administrators across four states and 12 school districts, plus a scouring of the districts’ evaluation records. New York City was not one of the districts studied.

Many of the districts evaluate teachers based on less than a handful of observations, each of which last under an hour, and in some cases just 15 minutes. Across all districts, almost no teachers are rated unsatisfactory, and virtually none are dismissed for poor performance; in districts that rate teachers either competent or not, the ratio rated unsatisfactory versus satisfactory stands at 1 to 99.

That’s despite teachers’ and principals’ reports, in surveys, that at least one of their tenured colleagues is performing poorly, a statement that 81 percent of administrators and 58 percent of teachers surveyed told The New Teacher Project they agreed with. The percentages of educators reporting that tenured colleagues are not competent rises as a school’s students become more impoverished, as the chart above shows.

In New York City, principals rate teachers as either “unsatisfactory” or “satisfactory” at the end of each school year, based on observations they have conducted during the year. A sense that the system was too perfunctory led the Department of Education to create new teacher data reports last year that look at how teachers affect their students’ test scores. The reports have been criticized for their shaky statistical grounding, and a law lobbied for by the city teachers union prevents principals from using the data reports when making tenure decisions.

The New Teacher Project has been criticized in the past by teachers union president Randi Weingarten, who called its studies of the New York City teacher market biased because TNTP has a contract with the city to help bring new teachers into the public schools. TNTP also is the group behind a report urging the city to save money by terminating teachers who are currently without positions. To write this study, TNTP worked with union leaders and school district leaders in the districts studied, which include Chicago; Toledo, Ohio; Denver, Colo.; and Little Rock, Ark.

In a statement, Weingarten said she embraced the thrust of the new report but noted that it ignores a pioneering method of teacher evaluation, peer assistance and review, that has shown gains where it is being used, most notably in Toledo. “We are excited that TNTP shares our goal of redesigning teacher evaluations, and we look forward to working with TNTP and others to improve the quality of instruction in our schools,” she said.