Instructional Leadership in Action

Teacher Evaluation: A Perilous Race to the Top

by Stephen Fink on May 11, 2012

Stephen_FinkArmed with the knowledge that quality teaching matters most for student learning, policymakers from state to state are racing to adopt new educational accountability measures that seek, among other things, to evaluate teacher effectiveness with more rigorous, evidence-based instruments.

States are moving quickly away from the historical binary rating system that simply rates teachers as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Most new evaluation systems are using a tiered approach that rates a teacher’s practice on a multiple-point rubric. Here in Washington state, like in other states, the new evaluation rubric will employ a four-tier rating system: unsatisfactory; basic; proficient; distinguished.

However, if we believe evaluation can improve performance, surely we must consider the practical implications that should be guiding policy decisions. With so much at stake, we cannot afford to ignore the evidence that this race for accountability will require a dramatic investment of time and resources if it is going to be successful.

Our experience at the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership shows that moving from a binary to a multi-tiered rating system poses at least two significant challenges for district and school leaders:

  1. The majority of our teachers are practicing at a basic level of performance despite our aspirations to have all of our teachers performing at aproficient or distinguished level.
  2. A large number of principals have not yet developed the instructional expertise necessary to use (effectively) the new, sophisticated evaluation instruments. 

Policymakers will be wise to consider thoroughly these two challenges, before new systems are put into place. Let’s address both of these challenges in order.

When we hold good teachers to the very high performance bars in the new teacher evaluation instruments, we find that much of their performance is rated as basic. I recently observed a calibration session where my colleagues (watching classroom video) assessed a 45-minute, 7th grade language arts lesson using one of the new evaluation instruments. These expert observers of instruction rated the teacher basic on many of the 37 performance indicators even though this particular teacher is regarded as a very good teacher by fellow teachers and administrators. It is important to note that basic in this case does not mean low quality.  In fact, to the casual observer this lesson would have been considered a high-quality lesson.

This is where it begins to get perilous. My fear is that our policymakers and public will see basic practice as an indictment of our profession.

I believe a more helpful construct is to see basic as a natural evolution of capacity building in a professional craft that is as deeply complex and sophisticated as the practice of medicine. We need to understand and acknowledge that absent the initial and ongoing training of the kind we provide to aspiring physicians, the quality of our teaching will be generally basic – still a quality product but not at the high level to which we all aspire.

Now let’s get back to the second challenge for policymakers – the instructional expertise of the principal. How do we get all of our principals trained and calibrated in order to use these new evaluation instruments in a fair and accurate manner – a manner that facilitates the continuous growth of the teacher?

Recall my colleagues’ calibration session.  Keep in mind that this was a group of expert observers of instruction, with a detailed knowledge of the evaluation instrument and instructional framework from which it was derived. It took them approximately four hours practicing with the tool to gain a consistent, shared evaluation of the teacher’s performance.

This complexity of both knowledge and practice has great implications for school district leaders that seek to calibrate new, sophisticated evaluation instruments among many principals – in some cases, hundreds of principals in a single school district.

First and foremost, calibration requires evaluators to have enough instructional expertise in order to make good use of the new instrument.

Sticking with the medical analogy, imagine asking first-year medical students to read and interpret an MRI.  Like human anatomy, there is a complex anatomy of instruction that one needs to understand before he or she can effectively use the new evaluation instruments.  Acquiring this deep understanding of instruction does not happen overnight.  Like the training of physicians, the training of instructional evaluators requires many years of dedicated study to continually hone one’s instructional lens.

We would all prefer that our kids be in the care of proficient and distinguished teachers. And we all want principals who have the instructional expertise to accurately evaluate and facilitate the professional growth of teachers.  I believe this is doable, but only with the right kind of ongoing professional learning.

It requires many years for a principal to become instructionally “expert” and for a teacher to become proficient or distinguished. It is critical that our policymakers recognize the magnitude of the investment necessary to move our teaching force from basic to proficient, and ultimately from proficient to distinguished.  We must recognize that teaching is every bit as complex as medicine and is therefore worthy of the same kind of investment in training. Teachers and principals are eager and capable of growing their practice over time in a performance management system that embodies the very best principles of continuous growth.

Yes, all of our kids deserve nothing less than proficient, particularly those who have been most underserved and marginalized by our current system. However we must be realistic about the nature and size of the challenges in front of us, and we must be smart about the policies and investments we make to address these challenges.  Anything short of that will result in either bad policy or bad practice. Without smart policy our children will lose again!


Dr. Stephen Fink is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), and affiliate associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

Topics: Teacher Evaluation

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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