In our last Ohio Gadfly, we analyzed recent changes to Ohio’s Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) and suggested ways it could be improved. This guest commentary by Greg Harris, Ohio State Director of StudentsFirst, emphasizes the critical importance of evaluations.
Ohio’s new Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) is a significant step forward in improving the quality of instruction for our K–12 students. For the first time, teachers will be evaluated, at least in part, on their impact on student learning gains. (Traditionally, teachers have been evaluated only through observation.) OTES also elevates the role of principals by having them play a more active role in observing and developing their teachers—hence, reconnecting them to classrooms and making teacher quality their priority. In creating such a process, Ohio has established a robust framework for identifying its strongest teachers, as well as spotting and improving the performance of its less effective teachers.
But with the sudden emergence and quick passage by the Senate of Senate Bill 229 in December 2013, OTES was unexpectedly put on trial only half way through its first year of implementation. The bill actually seemed reasonable at first glance. Its sponsors maintained that by exempting teachers rated in the top two categories (“Accomplished” or “Skilled”) from annual evaluation, schools could focus their energies on developing weaker teachers. The problem, however, is that under previous evaluation systems, the majority of Ohio teachers had been rated in the top two tiers. If this trend held true, SB 229 risked exempting the vast majority of teachers from the current evaluation system, as well.
This occurred recently in Indiana, where 97 percent of teachers were rated effective or highly effective (its top two tiers of ratings) under a new evaluation system implemented in 2013. We could not risk Ohio also becoming a state in which only a minority of teachers receive critical feedback on an annual basis. This undermines one of the primary goals of evaluations—to serve as a tool to help all teachers improve their practice and meet the needs of students.
Our battle to preserve strong teacher evaluations was fought for months, with some lamentable rhetoric emerging from opposing interests (e.g., equating support for OTES to “an extreme attack on educators”). Fortunately, the compromise legislation that ultimately emerged on teacher evaluations is pretty good (though we would have preferred everyone left OTES alone).
Basically, it offers school districts the option to stick with OTES or choose an alternative system. The alternative system would exempt the top two categories of teachers from annual evaluation—but with the important caveat that these highly rated teachers must also achieve average or higher student-growth scores. This avoids the problem that other states face when labels like “effective” are divorced from actual student learning.
There are, to be sure, concerns in the field that OTES’s emphasis on student academic growth relies too much on testing. Yet the evidence is mounting that capturing a teacher’s “value add” as measured by student growth is a good predictor of instructional quality. It works best when done as part of an evaluation system (like Ohio’s) based on multiple measures for evaluating teacher performance (e.g., classroom observation, student surveys, portfolios, etc.).
When we raise expectations for both students and teachers, results follow. The Ohio Department of Education, for example, recently reported that 88 percent of Ohio third graders passed the reading assessment in compliance with recent Third Grade Reading Guarantee legislation. This means that Ohio schoolchildren will be moving on to fourth grade based on what they learned, instead of the traditional social promotion. The fact is that remarkable gains can be made in a single academic year if we hold districts, school leaders, and teachers accountable for results. Like the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, we’d be remiss to go backwards on strong teacher evaluations that focus on the learning needs of all Ohio’s children.
Greg Harris is Ohio State Director for StudentsFirst.
 Recent reports from Brookings Institution (2014) and the University of Virginia and Stanford University (2013) have validated this approach for its ability to home in on teacher effectiveness. The most exhaustive study on evaluations to date, the three-year Measures of Effective Teaching Project (2013), reached similar conclusions after examining the impact of evaluations over a three-year period on 3,000 teachers in seven districts:
a) Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, Matthew M. Chingos and Katharine M. Lindquist, Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations: Lessons Learned in Four Districts, May 13, 2014
b) “Incentive plan for Washington DC teachers drives performance gains, Stanford/Virginia researchers say,” October 2013, Stanford Graduate School of Education